Illustration by Michele Perry

Everything you thought you knew about homelessness is wrong

We must change how we see people on the streets in order to solve the problems that put them there

The first time Jess found herself out on the streets, she was just 18. Someone had kicked in the door of her apartment, looking for one of her roommates, but her angry landlord evicted everyone and made them pay for the damage. Jess’s adoptive parents had kicked her out years earlier and she’d spent much of her youth in foster and group homes. Now, without money for rent or a family to lean on, she had nowhere to go.

Jess is one of an estimated 5,253 people who experience homelessness on any given night in Toronto. These days, she sleeps at the steps of Sistering, a women’s-only drop-in centre on Bloor St. funded by United Way, in Toronto, because her allergies make it hard for her to sleep inside a shelter. During the day, she works as a harm-reduction peer at the drop-in centre, helping with a program that aims to keep drug users safe. But she’s also had to resort to panhandling—and found herself faced with the harsh judgment of people passing by. “They’ll go by and say ‘Get a job. There’s no reason for you to be on the street,’” she says. “They always assume it’s drugs. But they don’t know your story.”

People experiencing homelessness endure all kinds of stereotypes—most of which rely on the assumption that their situation is somehow their fault. And, let’s be honest, most of us never stop to talk with people on the street to learn why they’re really there. But researchers have been looking into the true causes behind homelessness and what they’ve found is this: Just about everything you thought you knew about homelessness is wrong.

“They’ll go by and say ‘Get a job. There’s no reason for you to be on the street.’ They always assume it’s drugs. But they don’t know your story.”

Most people experience short-term homelessness

The homeless population is largely made up of people who will solve their own housing issues within a few days. Alison Smith, an assistant professor in political sciences at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on homelessness, says about 80 per cent of the people who use emergency shelters are there for a short time. Some might be going through a rough period and are waiting on their next paycheque for first and last month’s rent, while others will quickly find a friend or relative to take them in.

Health issues aren’t always the cause

When it comes to those who experience chronic homelessness (individuals who are in shelters or on the streets for months or years) many people, like those who would pass Jess on the street, believe that addiction, or perhaps mental illness, is at the root of the problem. In fact, says Kira Heineck, executive lead of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness, in many cases these issues are the result—not the cause—of the individual being on the streets. “Often the experience of homelessness will exacerbate a pre-existing condition, or it will create a new mental health or addiction issue,” she says, explaining that sometimes alcohol or drugs function as coping mechanisms to help people deal with their untenable living conditions.

“If you look at statistics of substance abuse, emotional health, physical disability, they’re the same in the housed population as they are in the homeless population, at least at entry to homelessness,” says Heineck. “But if you’ve been homeless for two years, you’re likely to be struggling with illness of some kind.” Smith adds that living in shelters or on the streets often means being sleep-deprived, not eating well and being under extreme stress—none of which are conducive to positive physical or mental health.

“Just getting a job” isn’t enough

Other stereotypes dismiss people experiencing homelessness as unwilling to work. According to a survey conducted by The Salvation Army, almost 30 per cent of Canadians think all a person experiencing homelessness needs is a good work ethic to get off the streets. But those who survive on the street are anything but lazy, says Smith. A person experiencing homelessness often travels across the city to get a meal, meet with a social worker, find a place to sleep or pick up their mail. Many go around neighbourhoods collecting bottles the night before recycling day. “To anybody who says that it’s a lack of work ethic, I just can’t accept that,” says Smith.

“If my employers had known I was homeless, they wouldn’t have hired me because they wouldn’t have trusted me.”

Randall Brown worked while he was homeless, but it just wasn’t enough to make a living. He stayed at a shelter at night and worked as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant during the day. He hid his homelessness by showering daily and listing a phone number and address provided by a drop-in centre on his resume. “If my employers had known I was homeless, they wouldn’t have hired me because they wouldn’t have trusted me,” he says.

Brown knew he’d be judged for being homeless, as though it was some kind of moral failing. In truth, he was homeless because he’d felt the need to escape his life in small-town New Brunswick where his parents drank and he felt out of place for being gay. Coming to Toronto at 17 with little money left him few options.

The GTA housing crisis is a major factor

The research says that homelessness has far less to do with personal failings than it does with policy failings. All you have to do is take a look at the history of homelessness. “Historically, we’ve not had this problem of chronic homelessness before,” says Smith. “If you look back to the 1970s or 1980s, you didn’t see people sleeping on the streets.” But today, our shelter system is being stretched. The city reports on nightly shelter usage and, overwhelmingly, the facilities are at or near 100 per cent capacity.

It’s not that people’s personal problems have increased in the past few decades; it’s that housing—and the supports that help people obtain it—have become less accessible. Cuts to affordable housing have, of course, played a role. Smith says there has also been “a failure to respond to a country that’s changing.” The rise of precarious labour markets, the gig economy and even single motherhood have left more people in vulnerable situations, yet policies haven’t kept up with these trends in order to protect those affected by them, she says. And, with rental prices skyrocketing in the city—the average one-bedroom condo rents for $2,020 a month—the most vulnerable populations are faced with struggle.

We need to do what Medicine Hat did

While solving all of these issues is politically complex, Heineck says the solution to homelessness is deceptively simple. “Homelessness is caused by lack of access to appropriate housing.” The solution, then, is to provide homes.

When those experiencing homelessness are supplied housing, given a say in that housing and offered supports (whether for education, substance use or mental health), they’re able to successfully remain housed. A study found that more than 80 per cent of individuals experiencing homelessness who received housing in this way were still housed a year later. Medicine Hat, Sask., adopted this approach back in 2009 and by 2015 had completely ended chronic homelessness in the city.

“No matter what a person is dealing with, let’s make sure they have a stable home that they can call their own.”

“There’s not much you can do without a stable home,” says Heineck. “So the point is, no matter what a person is dealing with, let’s make sure they have a stable home that they can call their own.” After that, any addiction, mental health or other personal issue becomes much more manageable.

That’s what Randall Brown discovered. He had been living on the streets for a decade when he finally rented a room in a friend’s two-bedroom apartment. Once he was settled, he went back to school to become a registered practical nurse and began working at a hospital for mental health. Today, he lives with his roommate and his cat—who was also rescued from the streets.

But not everyone is as lucky. Jess wishes that she could go back to school. Before she was evicted from her apartment, she had been enrolled in a carpentry program. For right now, she’s focused on more immediate needs, like transportation—her bike was just stolen and now she has no way to get around.

Money would solve many of her problems, but she tells me that, even when she’s panhandling, money isn’t everything. “When people actually acknowledge me,” she says, “it means more than money.”

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