“I grew up in the Golden Triangle. I played in your playgrounds, went to your schools, ate in your restaurants. My family was part of the community. I was part of the community. Neighbours would pass by and smile. I was 13 when things changed. Not overnight. For a little while, I didn’t look different enough. In fact, I’d be met with concern instead. People would stop outside the Shepherds of Good Hope and ask if I was OK, or lost. I was still your neighbour then.”
This is just one of the experiences from our team of experts on homelessness. Our work, as people who have experienced homelessness, is to provide critical insight on how to make systemic changes. In honour of World Homeless Day on Oct. 10, we ask you to re-think how you look at the people in your community experiencing homelessness. Know they are your neighbours, deserving of kindness, dignity, care and a home.
Homelessness is often cited as a problem in the ByWard Market, where the last census showed 646 households live on a low income, but only 360 affordable housing units exist. We need inclusive, neighbour-friendly approaches to effectively address the increasing number of people living on the street. It’s time to stop playing the blame game and start focusing on prevention and solutions to ending homelessness.
In a part of the city that has one of the highest rates of core housing need, there seems to be a constant teeter-totter of empathy for neighbours without housing. At times, there are calls for support. At others, there are calls for criminalization.
When does your neighbour become your neighbourhood problem?
Did you know that children and youth account for 20 per cent of people across the country who have nowhere to call home? Or that, despite only being 2.5 per cent of Ottawa’s population, an estimate of 30-to-40 per cent of people experiencing homelessness in the city are Indigenous? Over-representation of populations in homelessness is not indicative of an individual’s failure; it’s indicative of the system’s failure — the failures of our governments, our policies and our communities.
While some groups are overrepresented, anyone can become homeless. Even before the pandemic, more than 50 per cent of Canadians were living paycheque to paycheque. People are often only one paycheque away from finding themselves without a place to live.
Placing blame on individuals in crisis and the shelters and services helping them only makes it more difficult to reach people in need of support. Neighbours discouraging services in their area or complaining about people waiting outside for drop-ins to open are just some of the small ways we decrease access to services for people in crisis, rather than looking for ways to strengthen the system as a whole.
Shelters and other outreach services play a key role in helping our neighbours while keeping them connected to community. But we must shift our perspective from homelessness as just their “problem.” People experiencing homelessness are not a problem to be “cleaned up.” The fact that people experience homelessness is a cue that we are not doing the best we can for our communities.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Permanent affordable housing is the healthiest and most cost-effective long-term option to dramatically reduce and truly prevent homelessness. We can build our communities better. We can embrace our neighbours at every stage of their lives. We can ask for expanded services in our neighbourhoods when we see a growing need. We can smile and say good morning to our neighbours, no matter where they live. We can stop asking our neighbours experiencing homelessness to get off our streets or leave our communities. We can ask instead that they have access to the basic human right of a home in their neighbourhood.
This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.