For most of us, this winter has been a spectacle. Watching the snowfall, or clicking through the breathtaking photos of Niagara Falls encased in ice, it is all too easy to forget about our neighbours who are experiencing homelessness.
For these people, every winter is an emergency. The most common hazards—hypothermia and frostbite—set in at temperatures well above those recorded last week. Cold-related injuries are compounded by mental health issues and substance abuse. Impaired judgment regularly keeps people from seeking shelter, and has reportedly led to improvised amputations of frostbitten hands and feet.
There is hardly a more poignant example of how social isolation works: Those left out in the cold often stay there.
Our conscience is pricked by figurative words for people who are socially isolated—they’re ‘invisible’ or ‘forgotten’—but in the literal language of statistics, people experiencing homelessness are not even counted. Last year was the first time that Toronto attempted to count how many homeless people had died. The finding—roughly two deaths per week—is almost certainly underestimated.
According to the latest research from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, at least 235,000 Canadians experience homelessness, or roughly 35,000 Canadians on any given night. But again, these figures likely understate the problem, since they only reflect those people who were registered in a shelter.
This winter, as in every winter, cities are scrambling to react. Montréal is taking measures to open up more beds in emergency shelters, providing funding to outreach workers, and the Société de transport de Montréal is allowing homeless people to sleep in metro stations. With Toronto’s shelters hitting capacity, the city is opening up a federal armoury as a temporary emergency shelter.
What is too often overlooked, however, are prevention strategies to accompany immediate crisis-based response. As Dr. Joshua Tepper recently pointed out in the Toronto Star, cities are in a chronic state of reactivity when cold weather arrives—as it does every year. And yet there are comprehensive plans in place for far less predictable disasters, like large fires and nuclear events.
In recent decades, both local and national governments have started to create long-term plans in the name of “prevention.” Many cities across North America have adopted the “Housing First” model, aiming to move chronically homeless individuals from the streets or homeless shelters into permanent housing.
When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the plan to the public as part of the new National Housing Strategy, he proudly proclaimed “housing as a human right.” At the municipal level, the newly elected government of Montréal is planning to build 300 new affordable housing units per year for 10 years.
Housing First initiatives were first implemented in Los Angeles and New York City in the 1980s and early 1990s. Under the George W. Bush administration, cities around the United States adapted their own 10-year plans to end homelessness.
By far, the most successful version of the program has been Utah’s, where public leaders took the Housing First program statewide. A decade ago, Utah registered some 2,000 chronically homeless persons. Now there are fewer than 200. Utah’s success in nearly eradicating homelessness has been attributed to its relatively small, tight-knit community—more than half of Utahans belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to one reporter, “Most of the advocates and agencies in Utah know each other and work well with each other. They also know most of the homeless people by name.”
In Arlington County, Virginia, where the number of homeless individuals and families has been reduced by two thirds in just 8 years, there’s a similar emphasis on building community. Arlington County’s ‘Continuum of Care’ includes service workers who “connect with persons living on the streets, in parks, under bridges and encampments to help put individuals on the path to stability and housing.”
While ensuring affordable housing is undeniably important in preventing chronic homelessness, we argue that urban developers alone can’t address the question of why homelessness exists in our society. Consider that in Toronto—supposedly “the World’s most liveable city”—the number of people on the waiting list for affordable housing is over 180,000.
Prevention strategies that focus solely on housing fail to acknowledge that people are at risk of becoming homeless long before they start having trouble paying their rent. Indeed, some of our neighbours are at a heightened risk from the moment they are born. For example, an Indigenous person living in a Canadian city is 8 times more likely to experience homelessness than a non-Indigenous person.
True prevention must mean more than affordable homes for different people. It must mean community for all people. Preventing homelessness requires a society to commit to truly valuing its members, to take measures to right the wrongs of the discriminatory and exclusionary policies that have created longstanding structural barriers.
We don’t just need to build housing. We need to build belonging.
This piece, co-authored by Jessica Farber and Celine Thomas, is part of a series of articles co-written with students who took part in McGill University’s Fall 2016 Capstone Seminar, “Lessons of Community and Compassion: Overcoming Social Isolation and Building Social Connectedness through Policy and Program Development.” Farber and Thomas are now, respectively, policy and research analysts at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness. Our collaboration reflects a primary goal of the Seminar itself: To foster community-centered teaching and learning in the university classroom and beyond.