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Out of the Cold

Homeless feet

As an idealist, I would like to believe that the social safety net in this province worked a lot a better than it does and on nights like tonight, no one would be left outside where they could possibly freeze.  Most nights the system works but there are some nights people that are outside and as we have seen, some freeze to death.

The reason they are outside is that:

  • They don’t qualify for Social Services emergency funding because
    • The are receiving what is called Transitional Employment Assistance and don’t qualify for emergency assistance (which makes no sense to me)
    • Their worker decided that when it is 30 below, it is a good time to decide to make teach them personal responsibility.
  • Other emergency services won’t fund them
  • They have a fear of using social agencies.
  • They are banned from all facilities.

In full disclosure I have banned people before and will do it again.  The reason we ban people because they are too dangerous to other people (arsonist, violent, drug dealer) or are a danger to staff (predatorily sex offender, violence against staff in the past), or are a dangerous to themselves (they do something where like 20 people want to beat them up… it happens).  We have to balance the safety of the facility, clients, and staff vs. the needs of the individual.  While its easy to say that we need to give people another and another chance, when I have done it in the past, people have gotten seriously hurt.

The end result is that they have nowhere to go or no one wants to help them.

What we have done this year is open an Out of the Cold shelter at The Lighthouse.  Technically it isn’t it’s own shelter but a series of protocols that staff follow to make sure that people are housed.  It is a low threshold shelter where the primary importance is to make sure people are warm and safe no matter what the mood is of the system.

It sounds nice but it really isn’t.  Like anything that is a result of a failure of the system, it enables the system to behave badly.  In other cities it allows social worker to not help because there is another safety net that is there and it doesn’t reflect on anyone’s caseload.  It also moves a role that the government is supposed to take a roll in and moves to CBOs which isn’t cool.  If it was a perfect world, it wouldn’t be needed but it isn’t and so we do it.

Of course when we take them in, it becomes our problem.  Some people have fallen through the cracks and just need a break.  Those are a pleasure to deal with.  Others are entitled who believe that the system (which is now The Lighthouse) has to take care of them.  They are not so much fun.

As for the people who need it, it’s been good for them and for the most part good for the staff.  The staff have quite a bit of latitude to book someone in and like we say, “it’s easier to explain to [me] why you did it than explain your actions about why you did not to a coroner”.  In two cases where we have used it, within a day or two the men had found employment and housing really quick.  In other cases there are some mental health or addiction issues that made it harder but that’s part of it as well.  The only negative encounter was that someone started to yell and scream at the staff around 5:30 a.m. but they had stayed the night, were safe, warm, but just a little cranky.  We’ll take that as a win.

As for those that are banned.  Those are the calls that wake Chris Powell and I up in the night (hopefully Chris more than me).  We have worked with staff to give them more latitude but to overturn a ban, they are to call us and we make the final decision.  It’s a hard decision to make.  It’s hard to get banned from The Lighthouse and it means that they are dangerous to others.  We are working on some protocols that will make that happen more but I’ll be honest, it’s the hardest thing to deal with and like I said, when I have overturned bans in the past, people have gotten hurt.  What we are doing is re-assessing things and relying on some good community partners assessments.  If that is a go, we will house them.  Sadly not all community partners can assess someone.  Police officers are good for a lot of things, assessing the behaviour of someone in a shelter is not one of those skills but we also have staff there and most times the cops are quite good about it.  Emergency room staff on the other hand are a lost cause.  They can’t be counted on to give an honest assessment. 

The last category is there are some that are afraid of using social services and that is a post all by itself.  Basically something happened in their past that they associate with social services and for whatever reason, they won’t go back, even though they need help.  Staff house them and we help them in the morning.  

The other weird thing has been that people are coming in because they hear that they can get a shower and cleaned up.  They all tell the frontline staff that it is myself that told them that they can come in (which is weird as I never have). It’s not part of the program but the front desk staff has been accommodating those requests as well.  It’s a hassle with the way our facility is designed but allows people to come out of the cold, warm up, get clean and hopefully feel better about themselves.  We don’t mind offering that service as well and if nothing else, we are making Saskatoon a better smelling place to live in.  That has to be worth something.

The goal is that when we are done our renovations is that we will offer a full urban rest stop type of service.  Cold/hot drinks, washer/dryer, showers, and computers.  We have all the pieces but we will work hard over the next couple of months to integrate them together a little better.  It’s a process but I think we are getting somewhere.

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