Bissell Centre CEO Cautions Against Dismissal of Recent Homeless Count Numbers

“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.

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Success! Outreach Housing Team Meets Ambitious Target Early

We’re proud to announce that our Outreach Housing Team has met its ambitious goal of housing 200 people—and they did it 3 months ahead of schedule!

In early 2015, students from Strathcona High School raised $190,000 for Bissell Centre as part of their Treehouse Project fundraiser. These funds went towards establishing our Outreach Housing Team (OHT), a new program dedicated to locating, engaging, and housing people who are homeless. Since then, the OHT has successfully housed 200 people, a figure that continues to climb with each passing week.

One of the people helped by our Outreach Housing Team is “Steven,” who up until last year was homeless and sleeping in the River Valley. Steven’s social anxiety stopped him from accessing the help he needed. “At the time I was very bad with communicating with people,” he says. “I didn’t like phone calls.” But Steven knew he needed to make a change, and decided to contact Bissell Centre. He was quickly put in touch with our Outreach Housing Team, who found him a house in August 2015.

Since then, Steven has returned to school and is working on a marketing degree. He has plans to start his own business after graduation. Even though he was at first afraid to ask for help, he encourages anyone who is in the same position to reach out to someone. “You have to do it,” he says. “Life is damn scary. But you have to walk into the dark a bit sometimes to find the light.”

“Life is damn scary. But you have to walk into the dark a bit sometimes to find the light.”

— Steven, Housing Participant

Because there are few strict criteria that a candidate must meet to be eligible to access OHT services, people who do not qualify for similar housing initiatives can almost always get help through OHT. The team’s focus on keeping the paperwork to a minimum has made the housing process simple and streamlined, allowing them to house more people with fewer resources than other housing programs.

“It’s amazing how much you guys help,” says Steven. “Anyone who needs help – phone the Outreach Housing Team. They’re the ones that care, and they’ll do what it takes to get you off the streets. There are organizations who get thirty or forty million dollars in funding a year who don’t do as much.”

We are proud of the work the OHT has done over the past several months. But now, as funds dwindle and resources become scarcer, the support of the community has never been more important. It began with a group of extraordinary high school students and has resulted in 200 people like Steven finding homes and new hope for the future. Our hope is that the OHT will continue to grow and evolve with the help of our caring, dedicated community.

Thank you for your support!

MAKE A DONATION TODAY

Ground-breaking Study: Housing the Homeless is Cost Effective

housingfirstdrawing

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.

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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 Homelessness and Grocery Carts

shoppingcart

” 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.

pullquotecarts2

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

Move the Homeless Along?

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.
Photo: Edmonton Journal | Click Pic to Learn More

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…

CEO Statement Regarding News Reports of Police Removing People’s Belongings on Tuesday

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
Bissell Centre

The Faces of Homelessness, Beyond Stereotypes

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.

faces of homelessIn 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.

2012 Homeless Count

On October 16th, 2012, 2,174 homeless Edmontonians were counted. Compared to 2010, 247 fewer homeless individuals were counted in 2012. Click on the image below to read the full report from Homeward Trust.
Click to Read Full Report

A Client Story: Finally… An Apartment After Four Homeless Years

This story was written by one of Bissell Centre’s Homeless to Homes participants.  *Name has been changed to protect the participant’s privacy.
My name is Jennifer*. I became homeless about four years ago. Prior to becoming homeless, I was in an abusive relationship with a common law partner for approximately 10 years. The moment that I made the decision to leave this relationship was the moment I became homeless. I knew that’s what I was choosing, but the experience that I had in this relationship was so bad that I felt like I had no alternatives.

Being homeless is pretty rough. There were many moments when I was homeless that I felt scared and angry. I found that the amount of alcohol I drank increased when I was homeless, and I spent time picking bottles to make enough money to purchase more liquor. I spent most nights at inner city shelters, and at times, when I had no other options I even stayed outside. Read More…

Bissell Centre Supports Inner City Moratorium on Supportive Housing

Recently, I spoke at the City’s Executive Council meeting in favor of a moratorium of non-market housing in a number of inner city neighborhoods.  I did so with some qualifiers which I will mention later, but I want our funders, donors, community members, area residents, and my colleagues from other inner city agencies to understand Bissell Centre’s opinions around this important issue.
The neighborhoods that the proposed moratorium includes are: McCauley, Central McDougall, Queen Mary Park, Alberta Avenue, Eastwood, and Boyle Street. All of these neighborhoods are identified in the proposal as “high stress” neighborhoods because they contain a much higher incidence of non-market housing than do other city neighborhoods. They also are areas of town with high incidence of low income and homelessness and a corresponding higher incidence of human service organizations that address poverty, homelessness, addictions, mental illness, and so forth.

At Bissell Centre, we understand that many community residents of the aforementioned neighborhoods not only have concerns about the degree of non-market housing in their area, but also concerns about the impacts of human service agencies like Bissell Centre and others on the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

The proposed moratorium only addresses non-market housing, which is part of the problem. Often we tend to “singularize” issues and then attempt to address them. Also, it is common for us to aggregate various elements of an issue into a common identifier. In this case, non-market housing is a term that includes a wide range of housing:

  • affordable, independent housing for families and single people,
  • seniors housing in its various forms, and
  • supportive housing.

While the six identified neighborhoods together are home to 20% of non-market housing in the city, it is also true the neighborhoods have an inordinate share of supportive housing – approximately 60% of what exists in the city. It is reasonable to suggest that, at some point, it’s time to rethink our historic practice of locating so much supportive housing in one area of town.

At Bissell Centre we believe that time is now.  We will support the proposed moratorium if it goes forward without amendment, but our preference is that it goes forward with some changes.  We do not believe affordable housing or seniors housing are posing the same challenges or issues to the neighborhoods as are the wide range of supportive housing facilities. That’s not to suggest better collaboration between housing providers and community members concerning these types of housing is not worth exploring, but I am hoping a moratorium does not need to be invoked in these cases.

As well the proposal is to put in place a 10 year moratorium in McCauley and Central McDougall, with five year moratoriums proposed for the other four neighborhoods. Our position is that 10 years is too long a time for the City of Edmonton to not financially support any non-market housing in McCauley and Central McDougall.

We believe this even more strongly if the six communities, Edmonton’s administration, and area human service and housing organizations work together to address the challenges facing these neighborhoods from an overall community development approach. Consultations led by human service or housing agencies are not enough, and I suggest are not really community development consultations. Most of the time, consultations are designed by groups that are trying to convince the community that what they are proposing is good for community.  I am not suggesting such consultations are wrong or somehow deceitful, but it is time for larger scale collaboration around community aspirations and needs than any one organization or even small group of organizations can muster on their own.

For purposes of transparency I should mention that I am a recent resident of McCauley.  While it is hard to separate my residency from my position at Bissell, I am not a resident in favor of the moratorium; however, I believe there are many residents who think otherwise.  As a leader of one of the major human service agencies in the area, I feel obligated to support them.

Such support does not mean we agree with all the positions voiced by community members. That said, I can see how the high incidence of supportive housing for the mentally-ill and those with addictions are a concern even as I declare our firm belief that people with such challenges deserve help and a decent place to live.

I can also understand concerns neighborhood residents have about organizations like Bissell Centre that attract large groups of people to their doors and often frequent the area around the agencies during the day. Such numbers lined up at our door or at the doors of other similar groups do impact our neighbors.  It is also true that the numbers of people who are poor, homeless, and troubled by mental illness or addictions are a community-wide problem or challenge.  Neither the organizations that serve them nor the residents surrounding our facilities own the problems alone.

We know thousands of Edmontonians, as well as many businesses and funders outside the inner city borders, support Bissell Centre’s work and the efforts of the many other organizations that work so hard to help the disadvantaged.  I also believe that the majority of community members and organizations throughout Edmonton do not think that a much smaller group of neighborhoods should carry a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the location of supportive housing and helping institutions. 

So, Bissell Centre’s support of the moratorium, hopefully with some changes, is just part of our belief that there are larger issues and challenges to address. The moratorium by itself won’t solve anything. Working together in new ways just might.

It is worth noting that shelters are not included in the definition of non-market housing. It makes sense that they are not, but from the community’s point of view there is also a very high incidence of shelters in the area, some of which may be pressured to relocate due to redevelopment. Where will they go? How will that be decided? What criteria should be used to establish what shelters need around them to best help those who use their services? And what must the shelters, along with groups like Bissell Centre, do to help ensure not only the safety and well-being of our clients but the safety and well-being of our neighbors?

I certainly don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I do believe small pockets of organizations or small pockets of residents will not resolve them either unless we work together, and in the process of doing so, engage more residents as well as our own clients in building acceptable solutions.

I won’t pretend it was easy to voice our opinion at Executive Council. I heard colleagues I trust and respect speak against the moratorium and their opinions and positions were well articulated and also made sense. None suggested that not having a moratorium would magically fix things, and there were calls for actions that were not being addressed in the moratorium proposal, such as incentivising market housing development that could be accessed by low income people.  Our support of the moratorium does not mean those ideas are not worth exploring. Quite the contrary.

As well, when it comes to an issue as complex as this one, it is not so much about one side being right and the other wrong. Few things in life are that black and white.  But there are times a community requires a catalyst for change. A five year moratorium in the six neighborhoods with respect to supportive housing could serve as such a catalyst.

My sense is that the City of Edmonton will not approve any moratorium. We understand that position, and have no interest in polemic exchanges about any decision made. It’s impossible for civic leaders to appease everyone. But we hope no matter what happens, the discussion and debate, and more so the authentic interest that all involved have in strengthening the community and its neighborhoods, especially the six in question, will motivate new and innovative efforts of working together with area residents as well as with the larger community.

 Mark Holmgren, CEO
Bissell Centre