Source – nelsonstar.com
– “We need public forums where people such as myself can speak freely about our experience and ideas and where we are respected and heard. We need to be welcomed to the table. We need the ideas brought forward to be used to make meaningful changes in our social system, and we need to be a part of making that change“:
Ten years ago I planned to come to Nelson, having seen it years before. My dream was to relocate to this city to continue pursuing my goals as an artist. I figured it would take about a year to establish a productive studio. I phoned the Chamber of Commerce beforehand to try to get a sense of housing. I said I was going to be looking for a studio. “You and everyone else” was the cryptic reply.
A lot of positive strides had been made with my career up until then. I sold works repeatedly to the late Kenneth Thomson on Thomson Newspapers. I have a piece of my work in city hall in Katano, Japan. I was interviewed by the late Bill Bramah of Global News. I won various awards, including Best of Show and the Peterson Award at the woodworking show at the Canadian National Exhibition.
My long-term plan was to establish a workspace to do limited edition castings in metal, based on my miniature carvings, which had been selling well. My vision included involving graduates from the metal casting course at Kootenay School of the Arts. It seemed a reasonable goal to come to Nelson, secure a space, and build the idea from there. It didn’t work out that way.
In the 10 years I have been in town I have had over 40 rental situations, none of them appropriate to do even modest carving of my own, yet I feel that I could have made a considerable contribution. Instead, what began as the erasure of personal goals and legitimate accomplishments became an obligation to social workers, housing agents, and programs such as Job Wave, job searches and retraining, and the GAP and TAP programs.
A sense of apathy and indifference to my career goals on the part of government agencies seemed to demonstrate that these were in conflict with “their” agenda for me. Considering the number of employment programs I have been exposed to and that did not result in employment, the estimate that it costs $100,000 to keep one person off the street for a year is not a conceptual stretch.
Trying to preserve a sense of self-worth and self-esteem during this prolonged process has been challenging, including being visible to the community and seen as apparently able-bodied yet unemployed. Had I been supported to do the work I had been successful at, things might have been very different.
I suffer from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, which is rare and life-threatening and has no available cure, which further complicates matters. My medical disability allows for $375 a month for housing when rentals are typically $600 to $1,500 a month. This has created an economic barrier leaving only housing options that are more like warehousing of livestock.
I have had functioning work spaces in the past where I was both happy and productive, and that were easy to obtain and maintain. Now, emergency shelters are the next step in this slow unraveling of self. I have gone from making $800 per miniature carving to ringing a buzzer for a subsistence meal. This alone is a psychological overture to suicide.
This has been compounded with the attitude I have experienced from professional agencies that homelessness is a “career.” This has led to my opinion, which I will express as follows.
People, especially contributors to social causes, see very little change despite their support. Millions of dollars are needed to help fight social problems. Despite my lack of housing I’ve been discouraged from leaving town and told “this is your home.” And yet, had a social worker at any point in this journey recognized the ways in which I, as an individual, might have positively contributed and supported that potential, I might have been part of that desired change.
Homelessness is not a career. It may be that it will take a local street person who tragically succumbs to the elements within the city’s jurisdiction to facilitate a renewed government and community interest in improving and individualizing existing programs. I hope that with the publication of this column and public awareness of my situation there could be grounds for a new consideration of how programs and supports are developed and offered.
We need public forums where people such as myself can speak freely about our experience and ideas and where we are respected and heard. We need to be welcomed to the table. We need the ideas brought forward to be used to make meaningful changes in our social system, and we need to be a part of making that change.
Medicine Hat has almost eliminated homelessness by giving homeless people the keys to their own apartments
Donald Smith has slept in homeless shelters and roughed it on the streets of Vancouver, Halifax, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Calgary.
But his time in Medicine Hat was different.
After landing in the southern Alberta city late last year and spending a sleepless night at the Salvation Army shelter, Smith says he followed the advice of someone he met on the streets and made an appointment with a housing worker.
A few weeks later, Smith, who has experienced homelessness on and off for three years, says he wasn’t sleeping in a shelter. The 35-year-old cried after he was given the keys to his own sunny one-bedroom apartment in January 2015.
“I was shocked how they got me a place fast,” he says.
In 2009, Medicine Hat launched an ambitious five-year plan to eliminate homelessness based on the “housing first” principle.
Instead of just managing the homeless population, the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society, which oversees the plan, vowed to focus on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent homes. Once vulnerable people were in a place of their own, the underlying factors that led to homelessness would be addressed, and additional supports would be provided as needed.
The municipality of 61,000, located 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary, set March 2015 as its deadline to end homelessness.
Today, Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston says he’s not quite “ready or prepared” to declare an official end to homelessness, but he expects the major accomplishment will be announced by the end of 2015.
“Our goal (is that) within 10 days of discovering that you don’t have a place, we’ll get you a permanent residence,” Clugston said. “We’re currently meeting that right now, but we want to see if it’s sustainable before we announce that we’ve ended homelessness.”
When the official announcement is made, Medicine Hat will become the first municipality in Canada to end chronic homelessness.
Clugston, a self-described fiscal conservative, was initially skeptical of the plan, but since becoming mayor in 2013 he’s championed the initiative and today he’s the unlikely face of ending homelessness in Canada.
“I’ve done over 75 interviews … there is so much interest in this outside of our borders, but frankly in Medicine Hat it’s not a big story,” Clugston says.
“It makes financial sense. That’s how I had my epiphany and was converted. You can actually save money by giving somebody some dignity and giving them a place to live.”
Under the plan, from April 1, 2009, to Mach 31, 2015, 885 homeless people (602 adults and 283 children) have been housed in Medicine Hat, according to Clugston.
“That’s almost 1,000 out of (a population of) 61,000,” says Clugston.
He notes on a per-capita basis Medicine Hat’s homeless population was comparable to Calgary’s homeless numbers.
“That’d be the equivalent of Calgary housing 20,000 people,” he says.
Homelessness in Alberta by the numbers
A provincewide October 2014 point-in-time homeless count tallied 6,663 homeless Albertans who were either sleeping in emergency shelters, short-term supportive housing, hospitals or on city streets. The distribution across cities is as follows:
3,555: homeless people counted in Calgary
2,307: homeless people counted in Edmonton
294: homeless people counted in Wood Buffalo
166: homeless people counted in Grande Prairie
137: homeless people counted in Red Deer
140: homeless people counted in Lethbridge
64: Total number of homeless people counted in Medicine Hat
5: number of homeless people counted in Medicine Hat who were sleeping rough
30: number of homeless people counted in Medicine Hat who were sleeping in an emergency shelter
29: number of homeless people counted in Medicine Hat who were sleeping in short-term supportive housing
By ending homelessness, Medicine Hat has accomplished something many initially believed was impossible.
But what will happen after the municipality officially declares it has eliminated homelessness? What comes after the formal announcement, the celebration, and the short-lived headlines?
The hard work won’t end, says Clugston, who believes homelessness in Medicine Hat will never truly disappear.
“It’s a chronic problem. It will never go away,” Clugston says.
As people move to the city, or a person’s circumstances change — a job loss for example — advocates will continually have to work at maintaining the gold standard of a 10-day maximum shelter stay.
“Homelessness never ends. It’s just an ongoing issue,” says John Digman, the Medicine Hat chapter chair for Habitat for Humanity southern Alberta.
“The whole community needs to be really proud when we do actually end homelessness, but the job doesn’t stop there.”
And officially ending homelessness doesn’t mean other social problems — issues like domestic violence, food insecurity, or affordable housing — will vanish.
Medicine Hat Residents speculate that once the 10-day maximum shelter stay goal is confidently, and continually, being met, attention could turn to solving other social problems.
Food insecurity is an issue in the community — the Medicine Hat and District Food Bank helps approximately 30 families a day, according to co-executive director Celina Symmonds.
Symmonds believes the success Medicine Hat has found in ending homelessness, and the approach the municipality has used to tackle the problem, will both inspire and impact how other social issues within the city are solved, including ensuring no one ever goes hungry.
“It’s significantly influenced what our future will look like. Now we’re looking at food insecurity over the long term as opposed to emergency food,” says Symmonds.
“Medicine Hat is a unique community where we want to address problems as opposed to just band-aid solutions.”
Affordable housing is another issue and Digman says the Medicine Hat branch of Habitat for Humanity receives three to four applications a month, a number he predicts will increase in the future.
“The demand is just exceeding the supply. There is a definite need for more houses,” he says.
“Our drive this year will be to fundraise so that we can then build.”
For Smith, being hooked up with his own one-bedroom apartment was exciting. He finally had a place where he could “sit and chill,” watch whatever he wanted on television and simply just “have his own experience.”
“I literally cried. I was happy,” says Smith, who found himself in the city by accident, after getting kicked off a bus in Medicine Hat that was travelling from Calgary to Winnipeg.
While Smith was impressed by the work the municipality is doing to end homelessness, and how quickly he was connected to an abode of his own in Medicine Hat, he didn’t stay.
He spent about a month in his rental apartment before moving to Vancouver, citing trouble finding work as one of the many reasons why he left the city.
“I gave up a good place to stay to go find a new future,” he says.
As people leave the city, or move to the city, Clugston speculates that Medicine Hatters will need to take on a new ambitious goal.
“I didn’t believe we could end homelessness and I laughed back then, but we pretty much have. I don’t believe we could end food insecurity … but maybe I should believe,” he says.