Does anyone care about homeless?

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@arcos.org)
Fri, 17 Apr 1998 10:20:48 -0400


 The Toronto Star April 17, 1998

 Does anyone care about homeless?

``We have been living in the same doorway now for 13 months and have
gotten used to it . . .''

A PROVINCE that would take the food out of a pregnant woman's mouth -
which is what the Mike Harris Tories intend to do in their latest round
of social service cuts, by withdrawing a food allowance from expectant
women on welfare lest they spend the money on ``beer'' - likely cares
little for the men, women and street kids who sleep on the public
hearth.

Have you noticed how many more there are in Toronto, huddled in
stairwells or curled up in the entranceway to stores and office
buildings? It's as if these poor creatures dropped from the sky over the
past two years, suddenly turning this city into an urban caricature of
misery, a place I do not recognize.

Who knows their number? And they are just the more visible among the
homeless. Others shuffle along, idling in coffee shops overnight, or
stuck in the revolving door of emergency shelters and up-at-dawn
hostels, creating ramshackle hovels under highway overpasses or deep in
the ravines.

The ``continuum'' of homelessness is described in Homeless Voices, the
new follow-up report commissioned by Toronto's Healthy City Office. The
report includes first-person accounts from the homeless.

``I had to spend the night outside on Christmas Eve because I'd had a
drink.''

The objective is to move these people - for whom homelessness is a
chronic problem from which so many other disasters flow - into stable
housing. And stable housing without a relapse to the streets and all its
concurrent afflictions: drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness,
prostitution, crime. For those who have been sleeping rough for years, a
place of one's own can be alarming. The transition to a civilized
environment is more intimidating than the learned coping skills of
sleeping over a heating grate.

``People who have not had housing for years find four walls very
confining and frightening. There is no place to turn when things go bump
in the night.''

The long-term solution to homelessness is affordable, non-profit
housing. There is none of that being built in Toronto now. In 1995, the
provincial government cancelled many non-profit housing projects. That
same year, provincial welfare payments were slashed by 21 per cent. The
impact was felt immediately on hostels, the food bank, street health
services.

So, short-term and crisis intervention it must be, at least until a more
enlightened provincial government comes along. Asked for their own
ideas, the homeless people interviewed for this report provided many
creative and practical suggestions:

=95 Homeless people should be encouraged to search for housing in groups,
just like college students. This is particularly useful for single
mothers who can help each other with day care while looking for or
holding down jobs.

=95 Services geared to the homeless should be available when they are mos=
t
needed, specifically outside the 9 to 5 weekday hours. The neediest
times are at night and on weekends.

=95 Hostels with less rigid and more ``home-like'' policies. For example,
making them accessible 24 hours a day, rather than rousting residents at
7 a.m.

=95 More storage space in hostels for personal possessions.

=95 More wet hostels, where accommodation is not denied because an
individual is an on-going drinker.

=95 Open up empty buildings around town, perhaps charging $5 a night.

=95 Legalizing squats.

=95 Provide for welfare cheques to go directly to a landlord, or income
manager, so that individuals would not be tempted to spend their money
unwisely or fall behind in the rent.

=95 More compassion.

``Don't forget me.''

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Rosie DiManno's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Contents copyright =A9 1996-1998, The Toronto Star.