Saturday, January 9, 2010

Helping the Homeless: Jobs and family reunification

In a pre-Christmas post, following a few hours at the First United Church shelter and kitchen, I raised some questions regarding other initiatives that might help the homeless. In particular, I wondered whether more could be done to help people get into the workforce. I also asked if efforts should be made to reunify homeless people with family and friends.

Today I received a response from Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's tireless street housing worker, who probably has a better understanding of the challenges facing those on the street than anyone else in the city. I found many of her comments quite startling, and while I do not agree with everything she says, I think others will be interested in what she sees as some of the challenges, and solutions.


Hello Michael,
There are programs in the DTES helping people get work. The best of them is likely BOB.
We are in a recession and people are losing jobs. A number of construction workers landed in the HEAT shelters for instance. I found others in Stanley Park in soaking tents. In spite of this, many of the people staying in shelters right now are, in fact, working. I routinely find people living rough who are working, and have found working people sleeping outside for some years. The jobs do not pay enough to cover rent. Subsidized housing in fact subsidizes the low wages paid by employers, as does the money we spend on transit. They cannot get themselves inside, let alone ahead.

They could use a rent bank that would make possible a one time security deposit and first month's rent on a non-repayable basis, so people who are not willing to accept welfare could get started living indoors. People who are coming out of recovery programs, clean and sober and working full time are not able to find adequate housing because their wages are so low. They remain a long time in residential recovery programs, saving money with which to pay rent in the future.

The sweeping destruction of the unions over the past couple of decades is one reason why BC has the highest child poverty rate in the country. The families can no longer afford adequate housing, even with two parents working. Single men at the bottom of the construction trades, single women in retail cannot afford rent in the Lower Mainland anymore. We see in the DTES families no longer together because the stress of poverty is too hard. The children are better fed in foster care. The Government pays money to foster families, but is unwilling to subsidize families so they can care for their own children.

The Salvation Army has an excellent family reunification program, at Dunning St in Burnaby. They find lost relatives and interface sensitively. The problem is - about 50%+ of the street homeless grew up in foster care. If a birth mother can be traced, almost certainly the birth mother is about as poor as the searching adult child, and has no means with which to support. On many of our First Nations reserves, living conditions and the hope of finding housing is no better than living conditions and housing in the DTES - and more hopeless. While people return for funerals, or for a visit, they do not want to return permanently.

A dear friend of mine is an archivist who traces Métis ancestry for homeless shelter guests in Alberta. The result is more often the paperwork that can get them a Métis status card, than contact with a living relative capable of hospitality or support. Many of the problems of the inhabitants of the DTES go back generations. many are caused by grief, losses unthinkable, great trauma, serious head injury, depression, panic attacks, lack of access to capital. Important to listen long and carefully before trying to help. First - do no harm.

I am particularly interested in the suggestion about the need for a 'rent bank'. However, I still want to know why the Provincial government doesn't reconsider its policy of giving everyone welfare money on the same day each month, since I am told this often contributes to havoc in the community.

I also wonder whether a program that offers men free shaves and haircuts might also help some people to get more work. Perhaps Judy or others more knowledgeable than me can respond to these two specific suggestions.


Anonymous said...

Michael: I used to be a high school teacher in a very affluent community and one of the things that teaching taught me is that there a lot of skills needed to be employed. I'm not talking about being employed as a teacher but employed period. Think of all the little things that each of us who works has to master: getting to work on time, being appropriate with bosses, coworkers and others, planning for meals, planning for clothing, the list goes on and on. Even in an affluent community I recognized that maybe one in 20 kids wouldn't be able to develop all these skills. These were the kids who could never keep a pencil, could never make it to class on time, who couldn't manage interpersonal relationships to secure friends. I'm not trying to be paternalistic or dismissive but I think we have to accept that a percentage of the population is not capable of developing the skills necessary for "work" so any program that focuses on employment for all will ultimately fail.

michael geller said...

I think this is a fair comment. Although I am often impressed by those companies that hire people with mental illnesses that one might assume would make them unemployable, but with the right direction, and works.

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