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
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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.
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?
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 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
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
The quote below is from the video, Make the Homeless Smile, which has had hundreds of thousands hits on YouTube. The video is at the end of this posting, made by two wonderful young men. Some people may not like this video; they might say, what good does it do to give a homeless person some food, a shirt, or a drink? The next day they will still be homeless or hungry. What good does it do, some might say, to make a homeless person smile? Odd, though, I have not heard people ask, what good does it do to just walk on by the homeless?
As the CEO of Bissell Centre, I am continually amazed by the number of people and organizations that care about the poor and the homeless. These people exist across all sectors. I sit with them at government tables, in corporate boardrooms, in the pews at church, in meetings with other non-profit leaders, or over coffee with friends at a cafÃ©. Unfortunately I also meet people – thankfully fewer in number – that believe that, somehow, social and economic problems rest solely within individuals. Or who judge the actions of groups like Bissell Centre as ineffective because the problems we exist to address still exist or are getting worse.
Housing the Homeless – a Useless Endeavor?
One individual told me recently that supporting Bissell Centre to house the homeless is a useless endeavor because we haven’t yet eradicated homelessness. In other words the 240 chronically homeless men, women and children we will house this year is a failure because we can’t help everyone who knocks on our door.
I told this gentleman that I did not realize that housing 240 homeless people was a bad thing. I said I did not realize that addressing homelessness throughout our community was Bissell Centre’s responsibility. I guess I thought we were part of a greater effort to house the homeless. I guess I thought that homelessness is a societal issue with complex causality. I guess I thought homelessness is a shared problem, not just the problem that organizations like Bissell Centre must resolve alone.
I pressed further into the conversation, not because I thought I could change this man’s mind, but rather to understand how he thinks, how people like him think. We talked for about an hour. We did not reach much common ground, but here are my observations and questions.
Homelessness is the Fault of the Homeless?
My counterpart told me that the government should stop wasting money on the homeless because it’s their fault they are on the street. Later he also said the government should cut taxes so that he had more money to fuel the economy as a consumer. I asked why he doesn’t just pull himself up by the bootstraps and make more money. He waved me off and said helping the homeless won’t help the economy. Of course he is wrong, but just not prepared to be wrong. Read More…
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.
I wrote this little story – a blend of fiction and non-fiction – some years ago and just rediscovered it in my personal archives (which is a nice way of saying, among the stacks of papers kept in many boxes). It was written in the summer-time, but for me, it is a Christmas story about hope and change. I hope you like it.
Like you, I am frequently approached for a hand-out by someone on the street. Sometimes I hand over some change. Sometimes I don’t. When I don’t is when I find myself rationalizing that I don’t want to support someone’s drinking habit. Giving them a sandwich would be more appropriate, I tell myself. But of course, I don’t carry a sandwich in my pocket and I don’t go buy them one. I just walk away with my self-sustaining rationale.
I bet most of us do that more often than not. Yes, I know. Handing over a dollar won’t solve anything. What difference will I make? Maybe I will cause more harm than good. Who knows? Then I remember a fellow I knew years ago. His name was Ernie. He had been on the streets for twenty years – a heavy drinker, the personification of a “bum.” The kind of man you walk around if you see him coming down the street. All of my colleagues figured he would die on the streets.
Ernie comes to mind for a couple reasons. First, because he was always willing to share what he had – which wasn’t much – with anyone who asked. He was just that way, an all around nice guy (despite his rough appearance), even when drunk on Lysol or cheap wine. Second, one day Ernie just quit drinking and never started again — at least for as long as I kept track of him anyway, which was for several years.
One day I asked why he just stopped drinking.
He gave me a big smile and shook his head. “I don’t really know,” he said. “I just woke up one morning and said that’s it. I’m done. I threw out what little booze I had in my room, took the empties to the depot and headed to the Gold Nugget for breakfast.”
I guess I was looking for more of a watershed moment from Ernie, some kind of spiritual turning point – anything other than “I don’t really know.”
“Something troubling you, son?”
I shook my head. “I just thought you would know the reason.”
Ernie laughed. “I can think of some now, looking back. Like I didn’t want to die yet. But at the time, the honest truth is I didn’t know. I just quit.” He paused for a moment. Ernie had always been a thoughtful man and had an uncanny sense of other people. “You,” he said. “You were good to me – and the others at the drop-in, you know, the workers there.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I wasn’t fishing thoughâ€¦”
“Maybe you were, maybe you weren’t,” Ernie said. “But it’s true anyways. It wasn’t that you were social workers. You were just people, decent you know. You gave me change, bummed me smokes, gave me rides when my arthritis was bad. You just hung out and talked. I never got the feeling you were trying to save me. I hated that – people trying to save me.”
I didn’t know quite what to say, so I shifted gears. “So did you enjoy your breakfast that first day – you know, at the Gold Nugget.”
“Nope,” Ernie said. “I got sick like a dog, and then I gave all my change to Stanley – you know him, right?”
“He was in a bad way and needed a fix more than I needed my little bit of cash.”
“I understand,” I said.
Ernie looked at me. He smiled a little. “I imagine you do, son. I imagine you do.”
I don’t know where Ernie is today, but I have a feeling he is alive and sober. He’s still poor no doubt and living day to day on his disability checks. He’s probably still off the streets living in a small room in McCauley or somewhere along 118th Avenue.
But one thing I know for sure. When Ernie comes across an outstretched hand, he stops and gives them what he can. Knowing him, he likely has a chat as well. And when he finally does move along, he’s not wondering if he should have bought them a sandwich. Maybe he understands these things better than we do because he was there and then one day things just changed. I figure that if that can happen to an old alcoholic bum named Ernie, maybe it can happen to other folks, too, even folks like you and me.
The very last time I saw Ernie was a couple years after I left my job in the inner city. I was walking along Whyte Avenue on my way to Greenwoods to buy a book. He was headed the other way, moving slowly with his wooden cane.
“Hey, Ernie,” I said. “Long time.”
Ernie looked up at me and smiled. It took him a moment to recognize me. “Mark,” he said. “How’s things?”
“Good,” I said. “Real good. You?”
“Same as usual. My leg hurts a bit more lately than usual, but can’t complain really.”
We stood there for a few minutes, talking about other folks we knew, those who had died, others who had left town, the few who were still walking 96th Street each day. People streamed by us, oblivious to our reunion, except for a young man in a business suit who gave us a dirty look for being in his way.
Ernie smiled at the man. “To have old friends, son, you got to make a few first.”
I laughed. The young man didn’t, but he went away.
And then it was time. “Mark,” Ernie said. “I should be getting on.”
We said our goodbyes and then continued on our separate ways. A few steps later, I turned around. “Ernie,” I yelled.
Ernie turned half way toward me
“Good to see you,” I said.
Ernie nodded and gave me a little wave with his cane and then shuffled off through the crowd.
As I waved back I caught my reflection in the shop window. I stepped forward to get a better look but then thought better of it. I didn’t want to frighten people in the store gawking like some stalker! So I crossed the street and walked into the bookstore. I felt different somehow, but wasn’t sure why. All I know is I felt somehow changed by an old man with a bum leg who had quit drinking years ago for reasons he didn’t understand at the time.
Like most people, I wish for a lot of things in my life. I hope my children will be happy. I hope my wife loves me as much as I love her. I would like more money, who wouldn’t? I hope for less violence and pain in the world.
I also wish I could be more like Ernie. And on that day in the middle of summer, I wished for that more than anything.