Updated: Oct 4, 2021
“There is more to homelessness than lack of shelter. Afterall, we don’t say ‘houseless.’”
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Leading up to reading the memoir From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, I watched CBC Interview with author Jesse Thistle where he talked about the challenges of homelessness and that to him home is more than merely a dwelling; it is also healthy social relations, love, and a sense of purpose. These are basic emotional needs.
The interview stuck with me, particularly this idea of home. I asked the internet what makes a house a home? The search results were dominated by lists of decorating ideas rather than the abstract concept of belonging, security, and connection to place. It seemed a sad commentary on our consumeristic culture, reducing home down to something that can be bought, luxuriously taking for granted something so fundamental to one’s well-being.
Regular visitors to Down the Rabbit Hole know that I have a tendency to get fixated on particular words. A properly chosen word can convey many layers of meaning. On the flip side, words can betray the ideas associated with them. Take for instance the term homeless. Commonly, it refers to a person without housing. Yet, there is more to homelessness than lack of shelter. Afterall, we don’t say ‘houseless.’ It’s as if somewhere along the line society collectively ignored the social and emotional importance of home for people in need. Admittedly, I didn’t know enough about it myself.
I decided to learn more.
My first stop was Homeless Hub “…the largest homelessness research library in the world,” maintained by the non-partisan research institute Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Their Homeless 101 section was a good starting place. The fact is, though some populations are disproportionally represented (more on that later), people from all walks of life experience homelessness—at least 235,000 Canadians annually. Of those, 10,000-30,000 are chronically or episodically homeless, meaning that for the rest it may be a one-time event. Homeless Hub states, “data from a Ipsos Reid poll in March 2013 suggests that as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or extremely insecure housing at some point during the past five years.” Eight years ago, that was 3.7% of the population, or 1 out of every 27 people!
This may be someone you know.
Here in Canada, where the lack of affordable housing has grown to the point of crisis, these numbers are likely higher. While many people can relate to the cost of living increasing while earnings remain stagnant, some misconceptions persist about the reasons people fall into homelessness. These are often limited by stereotypes that focus on blame. Change is hard without empathy and connection. The organization Invisible People aims to change public perception by telling the stories of real people experiencing homelessness. My takeaway from that site is that anyone can find themselves in need.
The reasons people experience homelessness are varied. Supporting those in need requires a multifaceted approach. The good news is that first step to significantly reducing, if not eliminating, homelessness is simple: give people a home.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. That’s the type of sentence that might just ruin Sunday dinner with heated debate. Some people might be asking questions like: how does someone qualify? and how much is this going to cost? and where? If the idea of providing homes seems preposterous to you, check out my previous post Give It Some Thought & Make It Count. Let’s tackle these questions one at a time.
How does someone qualify? Simple. They are human and they need a safe place to stay. The United Nations recognizes The Right to Adequate Housing as a human right.
How much is this going to cost? Less than you think. Homelessness is incredibly costly. In 2007, the Wellesley Institute estimated an individual’s monthly cost at a provincial jail is $4,333, a shelter bed is $1,932, rent supplement is $701, and social housing is $199.92. That’s right: social housing is an order of magnitude cheaper than a shelter bed. It seems like a no brainer—we can save money by doing the right thing. If you agree, tell your government you care and press them to act.
Where? In your neighbourhood. And in my neighbourhood. A community is made up of everybody. Otherwise, people become isolated. Isolation is lonely, and Loneliness Might Be A Bigger Health Risk Than Smoking Or Obesity. Fear often fuels resistance towards implementing of any kind of housing program by would-be neighbours. The catchy acronym for this is NIMBY—not in my back yard. There is a fear that desperate people might do desperate things. Ironically, an absence of safe and secure housing can force people to make hard choices in order to survive. That’s all the more reason to help elevate someone when they fall, to pull them into the community instead of push them out.
This brings us back to Jesse Thistle. In From the Ashes, Thistle retells his experiences on the street while expertly weaving in heartbreak, love, community, and identity. His definition of home echoes through the pages, complicated by intergenerational trauma, racism, and displacement. In addition to his other achievements, Thistle authored the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, a standalone definition that takes Indigenous worldviews into account. It considers the effects of traumas inflicted through colonialism, and acts of cultural genocide.
Remember when I said some populations disproportionally experience homelessness? In urban centres, “1 in 15 Indigenous People … are homeless compared to 1 in 128 for the general population,” or eight times more. Historic trauma plays a big role in this. In Canada, this population was targeted, with a mandate to strip them of their identity, community, and connection to each other and their land—essentially an attempt to steal their sense of home. It’s especially egregious considering what I’ve learned about Indigenous worldview. As Thistle wrote, “Indigenous worldviews are inclusive: everyone is kin by virtue of our interconnectedness in time and space.” Early on in his memoir, a hungry three-year-old Jesse wonders why others don’t share with him and his brothers when they share everything they have. It’s a good question, especially in a country as prosperous as Canada.
It seems to me that the indigenous worldview is key to eliminating homelessness. Change is overdue.
What does home mean to you? How do people and places fit into that definition? How does your city or country support people experiencing homelessness? Are there any local advocacy groups that need support?
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