Being homeless is difficult enough when the weather is fair, but when temperatures drop, it becomes a matter of survival. The threat of serious illness, loss of fingers or toes, or even losing one’s life become serious concerns when temperatures nosedive. These threats are particularly potent here in Edmonton, where winters are notoriously harsh and wind chills can be extreme.
Edmonton’s homeless are more likely than most to experience dangerous cold-related injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia. They have few spaces to retreat from the cold, nor can they afford proper winter clothing that will protect them from the elements.
Here at Bissell Centre, we believe every person has the right to have basic human needs satisfied. Our Drop-in Centre provides a safe, warm space for people to escape the elements and enjoy a hot meal. Inside the Drop-in, people can also access free, warm winter clothing through our Community Closet. The Closet is especially busy in the winter when we distribute jackets, sweaters, scarves, toques, mittens, boots to every person in need who visits.
Helping people take care of their basic needs is only the first, but a necessary step, in helping people access programs that will move them out of poverty.
None of this would be possible, however, without our community of supporters who donate time, funds, and resources to our operations. Thank you for supporting Bissell Centre, and for helping the most vulnerable people in our community stay warm and safe this winter.
“We need to be careful about using anecdotal evidence to dismiss the validity of the homeless count,” says Gary St. Amand, CEO of Bissell Centre.
The most recent survey and data analysis estimate that the number of people who are homeless in our city has decreased from 2,307 people in 2014 to 1,752 people currently.
“The homeless count is meant only to be one snapshot of homelessness and while we need to be reflective about its methodology, it is also important that we consider all the evidence before jumping to sweeping conclusions about its accuracy,” explains St. Amand.
For example, Bissell Centre has supported over 1,500 individuals and families since the last homeless count in 2014 through its housing and eviction prevention work. The organization has assisted 545 people to find housing and 1,009 people to avoid imminent evictions.
“Further to that, while we have experienced a rise in the usage of our services since the last homeless count, our data has shown that this was the result of new services that we implemented during that period,” explains St. Amand. “These new services connected us with people who are new to Bissell Centre and they capture the majority of the increased service use throughout our organization.”
Another consideration is the forced relocation of homeless people due to the recent significant development of Edmonton’s downtown core. When coupled with the seasonal increase of people sleeping outdoors in the summer months, a rise in the number of homeless people in various locations around the city, including the river valley, is to be expected.
This raises the question of whether the rise in numbers in certain locations is due to the movement of homeless people rather than a net increase of the homeless population in Edmonton, as some have argued.
“To call into doubt the methodology of the homeless count without a thorough and thoughtful review of the evidence diminishes the good work that is happening by many organizations and individuals in the community,” says St. Amand.
“We need to maintain our focus on housing, because whatever your view of the housing count is, we still have over 1,700 people living on the streets and that should be unacceptable to all of us. We need to continue to work together as a community to bring long-term solutions to this issue,” says St. Amand.
It’s no surprise that being without a home can weigh heavily on the mind and heart. Homelessness implies more than simply lacking physical necessities; it can also have a debilitating effect on mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. People who are homeless deal with circumstances that most of us can hardly imagine, and it’s important to remember that not every side effect of homelessness is directly visible to the eye. Mental illness is experienced by roughly one-third of the homeless community, and is a major barrier to getting off the streets.
Homelessness is stressful.
For those who are homeless, every new day marks the beginning of another struggle to find a place to sleep, enough food to get by on, or shelter from the elements. The pressures that they face to secure their own survival every day are unimaginable for most of us, and can be incredibly stressful. Exposure to substance abuse, crime, and domestic violence is common among the homeless community only add to the stress.
Homelessness is isolating.
Many people become homeless as a result of the loss of a loved one or a relationship breakdown. People without strong support networks can have a difficult time overcoming such traumatic events, which can then lead to a cycle of isolation, and potentially towards homelessness. Since there are few places people who are homeless can go where they are welcome, a third of them spend their entire day alone.
Homelessness is depressing.
Rates of depression and suicide among homeless people are much higher than in the general population. According to the Canadian Population Health Initiative, up to 61% of homeless adults experience suicidal thoughts. Confidence and self-esteem are inevitably diminished by homelessness. The feelings of defeat and worthlessness that so often accompany homelessness can be crippling, and can prevent people from seeking help.
Homelessness hurts, but there are ways to help.
At Bissell Centre, we offer mental health services to people in our community who need it most. Our program provides immediate, short-term support for those with mental health concerns. For longer-term support, we partner with Alberta Health Services to connect participants with qualified psychiatrists, doctors, and other health professionals in our community, bringing them one step closer to getting off the streets.
The journey to health and recovery is not always an easy one, but here at Bissell Centre, we make sure that nobody has to walk it alone.
Learn more about our Mental Health Services.
The results of the October 16th Homeless Count indicate a small increase in the number of homeless individuals and families in Edmonton. While we hoped for better numbers, Bissell Centre is not surprised by the results.
In the past two years we have seen a much tighter housing market and a continued increase in rents. In a tight housing marketing, landlords have more choice about who they select as a tenant, and this often means that access to rental accommodations for the chronically homeless becomes more difficult. Housing First teams across the city, of which we are one, do an excellent job of identifying, placing, and supporting the chronically homeless in appropriate, safe housing. At Bissell Centre, we house more than 300 homeless people each year, through our Housing First services as well as through other Bissell programs.
The Edmonton community is seen as a beacon of hope for many who migrate here in the hope of finding good employment, but not everyone’s hopes pan out. As Edmonton grows, we will continue to experience proportional growth in the numbers of people requiring assistance and support, including help in obtaining affordable housing.
Bissell Centre is concerned about the rising number of people staying in shelters; we are worried about the trend in the rising number of youth who have no home; and we continue to be concerned about the over representation of Aboriginal people among the homeless. While making up 5.4% of Edmonton’s population, Aboriginal people make up 48% of the homeless.
There are many organizations in town who not only provide housing placement and support services, but also operate affordable and supportive housing. The City of Edmonton provides subsidized housing as well, but the wait list is three-years long.
To fully address homelessness and also ensure that community members can access affordable, safe housing will require continued commitment to investment in programs like Housing First, but more housing and social programs will not solely solve homelessness for our community.
In order to add more affordable and supportive housing in Edmonton, we need to explore cross sector partnerships among governments, the private sector, and human service organizations in order to identify innovative solutions to homelessness and housing affordability.
We also need to explore economic solutions that include discussions about living wage, the provision of stable employment, and the inclusion of benefits. Too many workers are living hand to mouth, and too many of our younger workers are unable to afford accommodation on their own. They end up living with others, often 4 to 6 people in a house they rent. This creates tenuous housing for them, given that if one or two of the tenants lose their jobs, everyone could lose their home.
We need to increase the community’s capacity to address mental illness and addictions, both of which are major reasons why people end up without a home. We need to continue working together as agencies to deliver assertive outreach programs aimed at locating, supporting, and ultimately housing the homeless.
More attention to prevention is indicated as well. At Bissell Centre we are piloting a service aimed at preventing evictions, especially for families who are facing the loss of their home for the first time in their lives. Stopping one instance of family homelessness keeps parents and children together and avoids the high cost of child welfare apprehension, shelter costs, and the costs of other emergency services.
Issues and problems of homelessness and poverty cannot be solved by any one strategy or any one organization or sector. These are community problems and we need to continue to seek out, as a community, ways for all of us to work together to put an end to the suffering and hopelessness too many of our citizens experience each and every day.
I am encouraged that the Mayor’s Task Force on Ending Poverty sees housing as one of the major priorities in its work ahead, and I am honoured to be a part of that effort. I am encouraged to see so many excellent Housing First teams working with the chronically homeless. And I believe our community will continue to come together to remedy what troubles all of us – people sleeping in back lanes, children hungry and homeless, families living in deep poverty. Bissell Centre’s vision is of a poverty-free Edmonton. Many others share that vision. I imagine you do, too.
Mark Holmgren, CEO
This video was recommended to us by one of our Twitter followers (thanks Deirdre!).It is a short video from Orlando and it asks you to rethink homelessness. Its message is relevant here and everywhere. Please take a moment to view it – and share! Rethink Homelessness Video
In addition to being the humane thing to do, a major 5 year study funded by the Federal Government has demonstrated the cost effectiveness of housing the homeless. As reported by CBC’s As it Happens, “The report suggests putting homeless people in housing, even before they have dealt with other problems such as mental illness and addiction, works to improve their lives. And it saves money.” The study focused on the Housing First approach to housing the homeless, which is the approach Bissell Centre uses in its Homeless to Homes program. For more info about our local Housing First teams go to the Homeward Trust site HERE.
Louise Bradley, President and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, was interviewed about the study by CBC’s Louise Bradley. You can listen to it by clicking the listen button below.
Resources of Interest
A Place to Call Home: Edmonton’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness(PDF Format) – Prepared by the Edmonton Committee to End Homelessness
A Plan for Alberta: Ending Homelessness in 10 Years(PDF Format) – Report from the Government of Alberta’s Alberta Secretariat for Action on Homelessness
Stories from people who live without housing, published 2008 – Bissell Centre report
” On the streets, a shopping cart is called a “buggy.” When I was homeless, I avoided “pushing a buggy” as long as I could. When that day finally came – when I had to get something from point A to Point B and had no other option but to use a shopping cart – I could no longer be in denial about my situation. I was homeless. As you can imagine, accepting that reality was devastating. That day was really a low point of my life. Maybe one of the lowest. I wish I could put into words how crushing it was to my sense of worth. Accepting that I was homeless meant that I had to also accept I may never get out of homelessness. But I was one of the lucky ones.”
Taken from “Invisible People,” a blog by the homeless about being homeless. Click here to read more.
The photograph above made me think. How often I am annoyed when I have a grocery cart with a wobbly wheel or that puts out an irritating squeak while I fill it up with food and supplies. The photograph reminded me of how crazy that is — to be so blessed that I can fill a grocery cart but instead of being grateful I am whining about a very small inconvenience.
A short while ago I wrote a blog posting here called “Move the Homeless Along?” in which I shared with you the pressures we are facing at Bissell Centre to actively discourage homeless people from congregating around our facilities. As mentioned in that narrative, I shared that there are voices telling me that it is better to scatter the homeless around the city than have them grouped together. I also shared my view that the rising pressure we are facing to move the homeless along is motivated by a desire for a better, cleaner, less upsetting aesthetic. Simply put, homelessness is ugly and upsetting and people don’t like to look at it or put up with its many side effects like drunkenness, human waste, needles scattered across lawns and in back alleys, and the eyesore of unkempt people.
I am troubled by all of that, too. We have staff make rounds several times a day picking up needles, cleaning up waste, and trying to stop open drug and alcohol use. We also had a crew going around the neighborhood recently cleaning up debris and litter as well as the paraphernalia of homelessness. I have no delusions about making a huge improvement doing that, but it’s better than doing nothing.
Now we are facing pressure to participate in actions that will take away grocery carts from the homeless. Yes, I know those carts were stolen from grocery and department stores and I know it is a crime to steal such carts. If the theft of grocery carts is a high priority for the police, I will understand if they take actions to reclaim them; the police have a mandate to stop crimes and arrest people breaking the law. Arresting people for grocery cart theft won’t end the use of carts by homeless people, however.
Grocery carts or “buggies” represent the last efforts of homeless people to have the ability to keep what little belongings they have: their blankets and tarps,extra clothing, bottles and cans, and so on. People pushing buggies and carts are doing so because, without them, they have nothing. Our mandate is to help the homeless. We help them by housing them, linking them to needed health services, assisting them with addictions issues, and we also feed and clothe them. There are very few organizations that welcome the homeless into their facilities daily and actively care about them and for them.
That’s why our drop-in centre is staying open this winter seven days per week from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. and why we have outreach staff on the streets 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. We are able to do this with the support of organizations like Homeward Trust and REACH Edmonton, among other funders, but also because of individual donations from citizens across the city who actually want us to do as much as we can to help the homeless and the poor with housing, support, and the wide variety of interventions we are able to provide.
Ending homelessness will not be served by scattering the homeless across the city. It will not be served by stripping the homeless of their carts; in fact, doing so will do nothing but harm the general community’s interest in stopping homelessness from occurring in the first place. It may improve aesthetics and it may give some of us the impression that homelessness is not such a huge problem, but the truth is that if we want a community free of people pushing grocery carts, we need to end the homelessness of those currently experiencing it while preventing others from ending up on the street.
If anything, feel free to pressure Bissell Centre to do more of that work to end poverty and homelessness. Share that pressure with our provincial and civic leaders, the lead staff of funders and faith groups, and our corporate leaders as well. Yes, all of those mentioned are trying to end poverty and homelessness, but we have a long ways to go. We feel that pressure every day at Bissell Centre when we have to tell a homeless person there is no place we can find for them – and we are pretty good at finding accommodations as are other organizations focused on finding homes for the homeless.
There are a number of definitions for the word, “crime.” One of them is about doing something against the law and stealing a grocery cart fits that definition. In this instance, the homeless would be seen criminals and could be arrested. But there are other definitions of crime such as “a grave offense especially against morality” and “something reprehensible, foolish, or disgraceful” (Merriam Webster). In this case I suggest that homelessness is the crime. That said, I am not sure who should be arrested for that.
Bissell Centre will continue to work hard to eliminate the need for carts by participating in the collective efforts of those committed to ending homelessness.
If you are interested and able to help us with our work to do more, please consider investing in Bissell Centre by donating to our mandate to eliminate poverty and end homelessness.
Mark Holmgren, CEO
The other day I was talking with two of my staff about the increasing efforts we are seeing across the city to “move the homeless along.” Some who advocate for dispersing the homeless tell us it is better to scatter the homeless across the city than to allow them to congregate around places like Bissell Centre or to camp out in groups in the river valley or other “hidden” places. I am not really sure how it’s “better” but it appears the sentiment is shared by more than a few.
I do realize that the aesthetics of homelessness are unpleasant and can make those who have a home to go to each night uncomfortable, if not distressed by what often accompanies homelessness: drug use, public drinking, needles on the ground, and human waste in the back lanes. I get it. I don’t like it either. It is unsettling.
But moving the homeless along does nothing but make the reality of being homeless less visible, and perhaps for some the illusion that things are getting better. I don’t think it improves public safety or the safety of the homeless, and I am sure scattering the homeless does not solve the community’s problem of homelessness.
Being homeless is degrading and painful. Not having a place to call home hurts. It is humiliating to have nowhere to go to the bathroom. Drugs and alcohol are both among the many the activities that lead to homelessness and the means by which people escape the despair of having no home.
Solutions are not easy. Despite the hundreds of chronically homeless people we successfully house each year, we see more and more homeless people walking through our doors. Lately, we are seeing more families. The other night a family slept outside by Bissell Centre. One of them was a two-year old. Where should we move them along to? Read More…
On Wednesday, August 14th, CTV News reported of an incident involving the police confiscating the belongings of homeless individuals near Bissell Centre on Tuesday, August 13th. Our position on this matter is that the news report fails to address the complex issues facing homeless people, the community, as well as the Edmonton Police Service and social agencies like Bissell Centre.
Homeless individuals come to Bissell Centre for a variety of services, but also they come to our agency because they feel safe and welcome. Our organization faces regular and growing pressure from the surrounding community, city officials, and the Edmonton Police to control and manage the growing numbers of people who congregate, with their shopping carts, around Bissell Centre as well as the many individuals who camp out on and around our property.
We understand that residents in the area have concerns about their safety. Community safety is actually one of the reasons we allow homeless people a sanctuary within Bissell Centre and on our property. Moving them along does not solve their problem and simply displacing the homeless to other areas in the neighbourhood is not an answer either.
Others may find the homeless to be an unsightly visual and incongruent with the development going on in the area. The real problem at hand is far more complex than shopping carts and campers – people are homeless. Bissell Centre is not worried about shopping carts and does not condone actions to “move the homeless along” in order to address what others believe is an unsightly aesthetic. Addressing homelessness by scattering the homeless around the community solves nothing and we suggest does not do anything to increase community safety.
We are concerned, as are the police and the local community about drug trafficking and usage, local crime, including violent crime, and community safety. However, we believe that the solution is more funds to house people as well as more programs that address mental health and addictions issues, rather than taking their shopping carts and disposing of their items.
Bissell Centre is working with the Edmonton Police Service and other service providers in a number of ways to increase our collective capacity to help the homeless get off the street. When we face a serious incident at Bissell Centre, the police are quick to respond and take appropriate action.
We have asked the police to help us increase the safety of our clients and the community, however we would not phone and ask them to confiscate shopping carts along with people’s belongings. We have also acknowledged that the police have a job to do and we understand that at times the actions they take will include making arrests for criminal activity as well as undertaking actions that they believe are critical to addressing crowd control and community safety.
I have instructed my staff to help those individuals who had their belongings confiscated by issuing them clothing and other items and services we have that can assist them.
Mark Holmgren, CEO
From the website – slate.com:
“Dutch photographer Jan Banning’s interest in social and political subjects and his skill as a portrait photographer seemed the perfect fit for a story on the American South’s homeless population.
In 2010, Banning was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia, S.C., where they suggested he focus on homelessness for a photography series.