Friday, November 26, 2010

Helping the Homeless: a few propositions and provocations

France Bula reported this morning that the City and Province have reached an agreement on the funding for additional homeless shelters this winter. While I was pleased to read this, I couldn't help but think about some other cost effective approaches that might be worthy of further consideration to help the homeless. So here's what I posted on Frances' Blog. I'd welcome any comments, or better still, I'd encourage anyone who agrees with some of these ideas to help promote them and make them happen.

When I first started volunteering with the Building Community Society in the DTES, my first proposition was that we should build more shelters as a short term solution. I was attacked by a number of community organizers for proposing this, noting that shelters are nothing more than stop-gap. But the realty is that they are an effective way to get people off the streets. I think the current administration should be complimented for getting some new shelters in operation. But they can be surprisingly expensive to operate, so other solutions are required.

Two years ago this administration also supported proposals from Gregory Henriquez and myself to create additional housing stock using prefabricated modular housing, located on ‘temporary sites’. It could then be relocated to other future development sites. I was encouraged by the city’s interest; however, other than a subsequent announcement by Kerry Jang that he would like to explore the idea further, nothing has happened. I have offered to meet with Kerry Jang and Dennis Carr in the housing department to discuss this approach further. Both indicated an interest in getting together, and I expect to meet with them in the coming weeks.

However, the real purpose for this note is to suggest some other things that the Mayor and city could be doing, in concert with the Province, the private sector, and the non-profit sector to further address homelessness. I have written about some of these ideas before, but here they are again, since they may warrant further consideration.

1. house the homeless in existing apartments, rather than wait for purpose built housing to be completed. This is the approach followed by Toronto’s Streets to Homes program, with considerable success. In addition to getting instant housing, Toronto also arranged for a variety of support services. This program took more than 2000 people off Toronto’s streets in a cost effective way. I don’t understand why we haven’t tried it. To those who say it’s because we don’t have available rental stock, I say, nonesense. We have hundreds of units coming available every month…many would be suitable.

2. help create more employment. I have supported Shirley Chan’s BOB and EMBERS in the DTES. I am convinced that with a concerted effort by City Hall, these organizations and others could do much more. We need to talk about this, and do something about it. While I appreciate many of the homeless are not able to work a full time job, or even a part time job, many could benefit from some employment programs. Christmas is a time when many of us feel a bit more charitable…perhaps we can help get a few more people working.

3. one reason the homeless have a hard time getting a job is that they don’t have an address, and they don’t have suitable clothes and they often need support with hygiene. Since the shelters do not offer an ‘address’, I would like to think that we could come up with a creative way to give people an address, if only for the purposes of job applications. Why not Post Office boxes for the homeless who want them? the city doesn’t have to provide them…just promote the idea.

Similarly, the city could be helping people get cleaned up…..why aren’t there free barber shops for anyone who wants to get a haircut and shave in order to get out and find work? Again, the city doesn’t need to hire barbers and hairdressers…just be a catalyst…talk about the idea, promote it and it may well happen. there are lots of retired barbers and hairdressers who I suspect would be happy to help out…

Similarly, the city could help find clothing for those who need clothes… Many of us have clothes we would happily donate to those looking to keep warm or clean themselves up to get work. Often, we just need a nudge and info on where to take things to follow up. I think the city could work with other social agencies to help in this effort.

Many people can’t find work because they need dental work and other similar assistance. Again, I know there are some volunteer programs operating in the DTES, but we need more. I’d like to think the city could make this sort of thing happen. Perhaps what is needed is a public call to get dentists to help out, in the DTES, or in their own offices. I’m convinced that some real help could be offered in a short period of time.

4. family/friend reunification..I know that many are on the streets to escape unhappy family lives. But many more have cousins and uncles or grandparents or just friends with whom they might like to be reunited, if only they had some encouragement and assistance. There are lots of us who love surfing the internet who could volunteer some time to help people reconnect. I am told the Salvation Army has such a program…But so much more could be done. Just as libraries have a day when people can bring back their overdue books without fines, we should establish a day when people are encouraged to reestablish overdue relationships.

I’m sure some of you are probably thinking that I have lost my mind by suggesting that the Mayor should be doing some of these things…

I know that many people have mental illnesses and addictions that need to be addressed. These are major challenges. But I know there have been successes in other communities with the kind of programs I am suggesting.

I would like to think that this Mayor, with all of the publicity and attention his office can muster, could and should play a role in promoting a broad range of intiatives to help improve the lives of the homeless and destitute. And why not do so at this particular time of year.

Last year Pete McMartin, one of my favourite columnists, wrote about school kids who helped create Holiday Greeting Cards for the homeless and others in the DTES to send to family and friends…they got stamps and helped find addresses …. it was a lovely story and I’m convinced that so much more could be done along these lines.

So to conclude, yes it is important to build new, suitable designed permanent housing. And yes, additional shelters are helpful, especially if they have lockers (and too many do not). And yes we need more facilities for those with mental illnesses and addictions…..

But there are many more small, complimentary things that could be done. They take leadership and caring, and I’d like to see some of these ideas discussed, and if valid, implemented this holiday season.


Jane said...

To a degree these services are already offered, but only piecemeal. There currently is Dress for Success and for construction workers I believe it is Work Boots.
Haircuts and foot baths are offered as a draw at special events..
I agree with your ideas. what I would like to see is a stand alone facility that houses all these services for job seekers.

In the mid nineties,I started a program offering manicures for women at the Kettle Friendship Society. My understanding is that they are still doing this occasionally.

I definitely understand your idea, and see the merit in such a plan.

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