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?
Homeless people who sleep in the river valley tell us that it is not uncommon for the police and park wardens to swoop in during the night and slash makeshift tents, and make those sleeping there move along. Again, move along to where?
Is it just a coincidence that the increased desire to move the homeless along is occurring as development takes place all around us. Development in the Quarters (the latest being a new hotel), the multi-million dollar arena and the museum are, I suggest, adding to the pressure to move the homeless along. Is that old saying, out of sight, out of mind at play here? Bissell Centre is in favor of development that strengthens our city and makes Edmonton a great place to live. We are also for eliminating homelessness, not hiding it.
I don’t like large groups of the homeless gathering around Bissell Centre, but for reasons that may differ from some. Large groups of vulnerable people attract drug dealers and predators. Women are sexually abused, and violence born of frustration and despair increases. So, yes, even those of us at Bissell Centre do at times feel compelled to break up such groups and move people along. But again, move along to where?
The numbers in the shelters are rising. Despite the considerable successes of Housing First teams across the city (of which we are one) in housing so many chronically homeless people, daily we are faced with the grim reality of not being able to house and help so many others.
Recently, on three different occasions, homeless individuals have asked me, “When are you going to do another Tent City?” I ask myself what that question really means. I think it means the homeless need a place to go where they feel safe and supported. I think it means that a good number of the homeless don’t want to go to shelters because they are afraid of what might happen if they do. I think it means that more than a few homeless people fear being placed in an apartment for fear of being isolated and disconnected from what little support they get from one another and from agencies like Bissell Centre. I think that question is about people wanting some kind of community, even if it is a community of people living in tents.
Bissell Centre cannot solve homelessness in our community. Nor can Boyle Street Community Services or Jasper Place Health and Wellness or George Spady Centre or the many other caring organizations that work so hard to help the most vulnerable in our community.
Nevertheless, we need to do more. This is why I have told my lead team we need to undertake efforts to house more homeless people. Not only is it the humane thing to do, supporting the homeless in homes reduces crime, emergency service interventions and the imprisonment of those living on the street for petty crimes. In other words, housing the homeless is also cost effective.
But we also need to grapple with the fact that for many homeless people, the programs we, the non-homeless have designed, will not work for them. We need to understand why and then do something about it. Does that mean another tent city? I hope not. Should the authorities slash tents and move the homeless out of sight? I don’t think that is the answer either.
A week or so ago, during a Bissell Centre board retreat, one of our board members expressed concern about moving the homeless along from Bissell Centre. I don’t recall his direct words, but what I heard was that during times like this, someone has to stand up for the homeless.
If Bissell Centre simply steps into line and becomes one more organization that is content to move the homeless along, I fear we will be turning our backs not only on the homeless but on our 103 year old history as an organization committed to social justice and the most vulnerable in our community.
Between now and the end of the year, Bissell Centre will be looking into how we can increase our capacity to house the homeless and provide the supports they need to start over. I will be talking to existing partners and likely some new ones to see what we can come up with. I will keep you posted.
Mark Holmgren, CEO
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