Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

Because voters do not demand real solutions for homelessness, governments outsource responsibility to emergency shelters, where people must line up to secure nightly beds, only to be cleared out each morning with no place to go.

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People with addiction are not intrinsic to downtown. The opioid crisis affects all strata – not just the urban homeless. But you would not know it by mapping the services that are overwhelmingly located downtown. Overdoses that claimed the lives of Kanata teens were what led our mayor to reverse his opposition to supervised consumption sites; now square that with the fact that all four of Ottawa’s supervised sites are downtown.

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The crisis appears amplified downtown because that’s where services are concentrated, and when services are unavailable where people need them, they migrate. A survey of Ottawa’s homeless population shows that 39 percent had lived in Ottawa for one year or less. Instead of reinforcing stereotypes of addiction as “downtown” problems, we must ensure essential services are accessible everywhere in Ottawa. Community resistance is a barrier that needs dismantling.

The common theme underlying opposition to the presence of stigmatized groups in any neighborhood is the fear of rising crime and undesirable behavior. These concerns are justified, but at the core they reflect policy failures. It’s time for us to be honest about what works and what does not.

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We treat the homeless poorly, denying them basics we all take for granted. We pat ourselves on the back for donations to shelters, blithely unaware about how minimally any have improved homelessness.

Because voters do not demand real solutions for homelessness, addiction and mental health, governments outsource responsibility to emergency shelters in which people must line up to secure nightly beds, only to be crammed into shared quarters without privacy and told to clear out each morning with their things and no place to go. And that’s if they’re not denied because of sobriety requirements or capacity limits. Then we wonder why they mill around all day, engage in sexual acts in the open, or urinate and defecate in public. Where else are they supposed to do all these very normal things? There is no place for the homeless to be themselves.

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Shelters are stop gaps. They are unsafe and overcrowded, with conditions worse than our prisons. Unlike prisons, shelters aren’t legally mandated to preserve human dignity. That’s why some choose to sleep rough. I have spoken with individuals who have used our emergency shelters and am aghast at what I’ve learned. It’s a wonder anyone sleeps. So why have we been funding shelters for the last century?

It’s time to try something new. Housing First moves people experiencing homelessness into stable, long-term housing without precondition, keeping people off the streets and out of shelters. Better yet is supportive housing for those with severe illness or addiction. The Oaks is a residential, managed alcohol program whose residents are offered small glasses of alcohol under supervision. It’s a significant departure from other recovery approaches that valorize abstinence, and it works. The clients are never intoxicated, not tempted to desperate acts to get their next fix, and are stabilizing. A less publicized program does the same with opiates. The first in Canada, it’s in an undisclosed location in Ottawa but this time residents are not complaining about discarded needles, public drug use, and dealers. That’s a good sign.

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Some will likely wonder why we should be “paying for addicts” or “those too lazy to work.” The answer should please them. These programs are not only demonstrably more effective, but they’re considerably cheaper due to offsets in the costs for health interventions, law enforcement and emergency shelters. Those suffering from addictions cost the Canadian economy $ 38 billion in health care, criminal justice, resource diversion and lost productivity, and they negatively impact everyone around them every day. This figure should wake up even the most hard-headed and hard-hearted economists.

As we head into the election, I notice that no party is paying any real attention to homelessness. The municipal election is not promising either. I should not be surprised given who votes – or in this case, does not. But until an equal distribution of services replaces concentration and innovative solutions replace antiquated service models, the misery is only going to get worse.

Susan Khazaeli is President of Action Sandy Hill. Opinions are hers alone.

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