Out in the Cold: The Harsh Realities of Homelessness During Winter

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.

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.

Related links

 

About Aboriginal Homelessness

Aboriginal people make up just over 5% of Edmonton’s population but in 2012, 46% of homeless people were Aboriginal. Produced by Coty Savard, this video provides insight into the challenges faced by Aboriginal people who have no home to go to. http://vimeo.com/103857765

Rethink Homelessness

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

Joe gets a very good job

Hard as things got for Joe* he never gave up. Bissell Centre never gave up on him either. Look at what happened!
Employed for many years in the hospitality industry, Joe faced some serious health problems. He couldn’t sustain full time work so Bissell Centre helped with casual labour placements when Joe needed some work. Joe’s health problems were so serious they required six operations to address. Demoralized and losing hope, he was encouraged by social workers to apply for AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped).

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Through his ongoing relationship with Employment Services, Joe felt he had” someone in his corner” and never completely gave up. Our Jobs First coordinator got to work with Joe and together they took actions to increase Joe’s skill development, self-awareness, confidence, and his competencies.

Last week Joe completed his second interview with a major Canadian coffee company and was hired as the Regional Manager for Quality Control. Joe’s new position will start in mid-August and his starting wage is $60,000 plus a generous benefits package.

Joe told us he now wants to speak at our pre-employment sessions about his positive experience in our Employment Services program but more importantly to act as a testimony to never giving up.

Our mission is to work with others to move people from poverty to prosperity. When you support Bissell Centre, this one example of how you help change lives.

Please consider supporting Bissell Centre’s life-changing work in our community.

Click Here to Donate.

* Not his real name

Ground-breaking Study: Housing the Homeless is Cost Effective

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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

Putting People to Work

[cross posted from our Face Book page– please check out our Facebook postings!]

A line starts to form at 6:30 am each morning at the Bissell Centre Drop-in. By 7:00 am, the line builds upwards to 200 individuals. What’s surprising to people is that 50-75 of those in line aren’t there for a meal or a place to rest; they are there for work.

Bissell Centre partners with 500+ employers to provide casual labour jobs for people in need. People who are working—hard—to climb out of poverty & homelessness. In 2013, our Casual Labour Program helped provide 14,000 positions, putting nearly one million dollars in the pockets of Edmontonians living in poverty.

This year we are exploring ways to expand our capacity to place more people in jobs, not only casual labour placements, but also in longer terms contracts and permanent positions. Stay tuned for more as the year progresses.

Learn more about our Employment Services and our Casual Labour Program.

More Bad News for the Poor

In April 2016, the Government of Canada will stop issuing checks to Canadians and using direct deposit instead. Touted to be a good example of austerity, the result will be more than $17 million in savings for the government. Direct deposit is more secure of course and continues even as people relocate. Moving more to direct deposit is fine for most of us, but not for the people who can’t get a bank account. According to the Canadian Community Reinvestment Coalition, “over 600,000 Canadians, many with low incomes, have no bank account and inadequate access to other banking services.”

Here is what will likely happen.

  • A percentage of the 600,000 will get identification and open bank accounts.  What percentage is not known.
  • The remainder will not have bank accounts and will not receive their federal cheques. My guess this amount of money involved will be a whole lot higher than the $17 million saved by the government.
  • Hundreds of thousands of low income people will experience significant hardship. Many may face the loss of housing and a deeper poverty than ever before. Health issues will increase and for those most desperate, perhaps crime will become an option for more than we care to think.
  • The economy will lose out on the commerce end of things and likely be faced with the local costs of increased poverty by those affected by the April 2016 change.

This seems to be an example of an austerity measure that requires further thinking and more so a sensitivity to the realities faced by folks who can’t get identification and/or open a bank account. It seems so simple for most of us, but not so for way too many of our neighbours.

The savings experienced by the federal government will result in increased pressures on organizations like Bissell Centre that work to support the poor and disadvantaged. It’s not like our organizations are looking for more problems to help the poor overcome. Will human service organizations have to raise more money to help the government save its $17 million?

I don’t think this is a black and white issue. Clearly, for the majority of Canadians direct deposit works just fine and there are cost savings to be realized there, and I think the government should save money where it can, but certainly there must be a way for the government to accommodate those who can’t get bank accounts (or don’t want one – it is a free country, right?). After all, I would assume if the government is issuing payments these folks are entitled to, It follows that it take what steps are reasonable to ensure their citizens can receive what is rightfully their’s.

What do you think?

Can a Buss Pass Change a Life? *

In 2011, Guelph City Council took steps to make public transportation affordable to low income families. This two year pilot allowed for the purchase of a bus pass for half the normal rate. Taylor and Newbury Consulting were contracted to evaluate the pilot and to assess if it should be permanent program. Here is a summary from the consulting firm’s website:
” We found that the pass had been well used. Over two years, almost 2200 people (or about 17% of all people living below the poverty line in Guelph) have used the pass. We heard from users that the pass had made a real difference in their lives. We also learned a great deal about the challenges that a municipality can face in the process of launching and managing this kind of program.

“Our report offered suggestions about making the program more accessible and more cost-effective. At the end of the day, we concluded that the success of the Affordable Bus Pass in Guelph really relied on three key factors; 1) the willingness of municipal staff from different departments to work together, 2) the ongoing support of key community allies and 3) the commitment of the steering committee to ongoing measurement and reporting of progress.

“In October of 2013, TNC was very pleased to be present in council chambers when the social services committee forwarded the proposal for ongoing funding of the Affordable Bus Pass to council. On November 25th, the program became permanent.”

Here’s hoping Edmonton can learn from the good folks in Guelph and we can craft our own version of a program that works to eliminate transportation as a barrier to employment, health care, access to day care and so on.

If you want to read a summary of the evaluation, go here.

Thanks to Andrew Taylor for posting info about this program on the Tamarack CCI website.

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.

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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