The ugly truth that no politician dares say publicly is that shelters are degrading, affording the unhoused less dignity than our jails are mandated to provide to our worst offenders. Shelters are a stopgap. Though they are doing more than the nothing our governments can claim, they are an industry. You can find out about more about how this industry operates by speaking to their clients, those who work there, and checking out their finances and impact at Charity Intelligence.
Shelters understandably have rules but they aren’t favourable to someone who might want to try to get a job. You can’t just check in and out when you want. With the opioid crisis raging, there are now bed-checks done at 15-minute intervals to make sure everyone is alive and well, but I imagine it only makes sleep even more impossible. It is the luck of the draw whether their roommates each night will be violent, abusive, erratic, or just plain annoying. The only thing that is certain is that everyone there is going through the absolute worst point of their lives. Come morning, they must all take their belongings and leave.
Are we really that surprised to see people masturbating, having sex, urinating, and defecating in public during daylight — all the same very normal things we all do in the privacy of our own homes?
We must immediately begin to redirect the very substantial resources that fund shelters towards solutions that get people off the street and into their own homes.
Housing First is one approach. It moves people experiencing homelessness into stable and long-term housing without precondition and with necessary supports. But let us be bolder. My personal favourite is supportive housing, specifically residential programs tailored to those who have severe mental health issues or addiction. There is a managed alcohol program whose residents are offered “The Pour” — that is a small glass of alcohol every hour from 7:30 am until 9:30 pm every day — under medical supervision. It is a break from traditional recovery approaches that romanticize abstinence and sobriety. And it works; they are not on the streets panhandling, prostituting, or stealing to feed their addiction and instead are working through trauma, repairing old ties, and forging new ones. A less known program in Ottawa does the same with opiates. But something is different because residents aren’t complaining about discarded needles, drug dealers, and public consumption.
I am sure there are those who think we should not reward addicts or people who don’t pay tax. OK, so let’s talk numbers.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association those suffering from addictions cost the Canadian economy $38 billion in health care, criminal justice, lost productivity, and they impact you and me every day. HomelessHub reports that the annual cost to society for people struggling with homelessness is about $7 billion because of the staggering costs of emergency interventions, criminal justice, and the impacts on businesses and residents. What would happen if governments invested differently? What if just the $34 million from the City of Ottawa’s annual funding alone went directly toward housing the approximately 1400 unhoused individuals and families currently crammed in shelters or in rundown motel rooms over the bridge in Vanier? The City pays $3000 a month per room at this particular motel. It is more cost-effective to give people homes where they can be themselves than to maintain them in a cycle of poverty. It is also more dignifying for the recipients.
Sandy Hill has a front-row seat to the suffering and social disorder caused by addiction and homelessness. We must start demanding new and innovative solutions that address the root causes and recurring pathways to these problems or otherwise content ourselves with playing whack-a-mole with the “shooting galleries” that punctuate our community. Without pragmatic solutions, those suffering from homelessness and addiction and the communities that surround them will both be stigmatized.
Sandy Hill residents who care about people experiencing homelessness and addiction, who want a cleaner and safer neighbourhood, and who want to see better programs should join Action Sandy Hill (ASH). You can read more about ASH’s position on these issues at its website. And they should support political candidates who are prepared to do what is undoubtedly hard work and commit themselves to the long haul of holding our elected officials accountable.