Tag Archives: homelessness

The Astonishing Decline of Homelessness in America

… and why this quiet trend is about to reverse itself

In the next few years, as Washington looks to cut spending across the board, the public’s aversion to homelessness could contribute to its return. We have seen that some constituents have successfully lobbied to overturn some parts of the sequester, such as the FAA cuts. But the homeless population has notoriously low voter turnout, and certainly has little money to spare for campaign contributions. They are unlikely to have much power in an age of austerity and there seems to be little recognition or reward to be gained for politicians by serving the homeless.

As quietly as homelessness has fallen, so too it will go up quietly – unless there is major intervention. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that sequestration cuts from homelessness programs are set to expel 100,000 people from a range of housing and shelter programs this year. That’s nearly one sixth of the current total homeless population. Far from gently raising the homeless rate, it would undo a full decade of progress.

The Wound Inside

Lukas makes his rounds as a caseworker, delivering meds, gifts and good cheer to participants while exposing the dark history behind the addiction issues that plague Winnipeg’s Aboriginal homeless population. This short film is a chapter from Here At Home, a web documentary about mental health and homelessness that takes us inside the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home pilot project.

New Report Paints Vivid Picture of Abuse Among Homeless Youth

This is depressing

Of those young women in D.C., more than 40 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, compared to only 16 percent of their non-abused peers. We recommend providing increased and targeted trauma services to sexually abused young women, 85 percent of whom report they were asked to leave their prior residence, where they were usually staying with family or friends. With intervention services that address the emotional and psychological issues associated with untreated trauma, the young women can begin to heal, and avoid some of the dangers that a history of untreated abuse puts them at risk of.

I have spent the last two and a half years working on a book about kids like those who come to Covenant House every day. It’s called Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, and the figures conjure up the faces my co-author Tina Kelley and I have come to love — of Benjamin, who spent his childhood in more than 30 places — foster homes, residential treatment centers, group homes, psych wards — after his mother went to jail for abusing him when he was a toddler. I think of Creionna, who became a mother at 17 and found our homeless shelter more welcoming than her father’s home. And Paulie, who got his high school equivalency diploma up here in Alaska, where I recently attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new shelter with many more beds. These young people, all of whom had abusive families, are thriving now, thanks in part to the unconditional love and respect they received at Covenant House shelters.

In the D.C. report, a couple trends jumped out at me, in part because they showed clear directions our programs need to take. For one, the recession has not been kind to young people. In the two wards of the District of Columbia that send us the most residents, Ward 7 and the one our shelter is located in, Ward 8, the percentage of 16-21-year-olds who were unemployed nearly doubled, to 72 percent from 38 percent. Yikes! (In our five-shelter study, almost 80 percent of our kids were unemployed, almost 60 percent hadn’t finished high school or gotten an equivalency diploma.)

Being homeless

Heartbreaking story of someone’s first week of being homeless.

May 18th 2007, I woke up at 7 am because I had barely a few hours of sleep, I had spent the previous night praying for God to perform a miracle and send some help, I believed the help was coming but couldn’t shake the little bit of fear in me.

At 8 am the door knocked and I opened the door, the bailiff was at the door, a large man in height and width and he told me he had court papers to seize the house. Two estate agents entered the house and the baliff began to change the locks on the front door.I was told me I had one hour to pack all I had. I did not even have time to take a shower. As I packed the estate agents went through the house, calculating how much profit they would make.

Homelessness on the rise in the U.K.

From the Guardian

The first signs of a homelessness crisis in England’s towns and cities are emerging, with increases in rough sleeping, street drinking, crime and antisocial behaviour as a result of swingeing cuts to hostel and housing services, according to a report published on Wednesday.

Charities have warned that they are struggling to keep the lid on spiralling demand for shelter and support among homeless people, while grappling with average funding cuts of 15%, the loss of one in 10 staff, and the promise of more cuts to come in the coming months.

A hard core of homeless people with complex needs and difficult behaviours – often mental illness or substance abuse-related – are in danger of falling through the gaps because cuts mean specialist support is increasingly no longer affordable, particularly at night.

More projects are refusing to work with difficult clients because they cannot ensure the safety of staff. "These are often the people who need support the most and their exclusion from homelessness services is likely to lead to a downward spiral into entrenched homelessness," says the report from the homeless charity umbrella group Homeless Link, which surveyed 500 homeless projects in England in November.

Homelessness under Michael Bloomberg

After a bout with depression, author Steven Boone finds himself homeless in New York City

Three months later, the last of my small savings ran out, and I went to my landlady in Castle Hill to tell her that I would be leaving at the end of the week, so that she could get a new room renter lined up right away. She asked where I was going. I lied, and told her I would stay with family until I got back on my feet. On Friday, I went to 30th Street Intake Shelter (better known as the Bellevue homeless shelter) for the first time and got assigned to Ready Willing and Able shelter in Brooklyn.

The next morning, I met my father to load his van up with my belongings and store them in an uncle’s garage. He asked me where I was going. I lied again.

This man was 72 years old, living in a small apartment with his wife and supplementing his fixed income by working in a high school cafeteria. All my life, he’d worked seven days a week—six for the U.S. Postal Service, and Sundays cleaning up at a beauty school. (Growing up, I used to be his assistant at the school, paid in movie money and donuts.)

Decades later, I hadn’t managed to do anything to ease his burden. All my adult life in New York, working simply meant paying the rent and keeping the lights on. So, to the extent that I was committed to living, I was committed to making the next transaction between us be a check for some outrageous sum of money, from me to him. If I told him as much, I knew what he would say: “Sport, I never cared that you kids would become king of the hill or any kind of bigshot, so long as I raised y’all to be good people in this world. That’s all I ever wanted, and I got what I wanted.” And in fact that’s how he put it a couple years later, during one of our annual shy, stare-at-the-floor heart-to-hearts.

I spent the weekend at Ready Willing and Able, a private shelter run by the DOE Fund that offers job training in immaculate facilities. Lunch and dinner are served on bleach-white ceramic plates with heavy, sparkling silverware. The food is fresh and diner quality. By Monday it was time to leave.

A housing liaison gathered all the newcomers in a room to give us the rundown. We had four options: join Ready Willing and Able’s program, which prepared men to become street sweepers and janitors; sign up for a Bloomberg administration program which presents participants with a one-way ticket out of town, so long as the applicants could provide a contact person in the destination city who would agree to host them; enter the city’s shelter system, which the liaison accurately portrayed as a horror show, with gang-and-drug-infested death traps like Wards Island (Said one of my brethren, “Yo, I was at Wards Island one night, woke up and a dude was laying there dead, all cut the fuck up.”); or hop in the van with him to tour Brooklyn’s three-quarter sober houses, which were private residences that sounded a lot more promising than a shelter.

It was a tough ride

Mayor Bloomberg has been tinkering with New York City’s homeless problem since his first days in office nine years ago. No matter what his administration tries, it seems, the homeless population in New York just keeps rising. But there are certain basic realities that make homelessness in New York so intractable: The rent is too high, and wages are too low. Just the other day here at Bowery Mission Transitional Center, a job counselor I was talking to made it plain: “The reality? A living wage in New York is $13 an hour and above. It’s not $8 an hour. A living wage is in the $26K-a-year-and- up bracket, so you can pay rent and at least have a little something left over to save or spend.”

Yet, last year, when I attended the mandatory Back to Work “job readiness” program administered by Goodwill, an HRA (Human Resources Administration) client, counselors pushed participants to jump on the first $7.75-an-hour job that came down the pike. Just get to work right away, save, and rent a room somewhere, as quickly as possible, they said.

The thing is, you can rent a room in Harlem for $150 a week. And, at near-minimum wage, your life will become devoted to keeping that room. If after a few weeks, you don’t find a job through one of the city’s “job readiness” contractors like Goodwill or Workforce 1, you must then report to a Work Experience Program assignment.

via

For street people of all ages, mental health a critical issue

From the Montreal Gazette

Dans la rue’s six counsellors and two staff psychologists do what they can to help young people who are hurting. For some that’s not enough.

“We have some cases that are scary,” said Tchitacov. “The person is going to hang themselves or they are going to kill somebody. They are completely disconnected. So we go to a judge and get (a temporary committal order).”

In most cases, within 48 hours, those kids are back on the streets.

That happens in Saskatchewan but often times the order is ignored by an emergency room doctor and the patient never even sees a psychiatrist.  I have seen people sent to RUH on orders only to have them back in 40 minutes because they “presented well”.

“We’ve had people at crisis centres ask my staff, ‘Well, how serious is the crisis?’ You stop and say, ‘What do you mean? Are you a crisis centre? Your mandate is to help people in crisis. Are there degrees of crisis?’ ”

Still, Tchitacov understands their motivation.

“Everybody is scared. Everybody is so overwhelmed that they are reluctant to open their doors to more difficult cases. They know this is going to be a handful, and they try to find ways not to take it in,” he said.

“Imagine the poor kid. It’s a whole other thing to get somebody to the stage of actually coming to you and saying I need help now. You start working like the devil on the phone and you aren’t getting anywhere.”

There are some encouraging signs attitudes and access to programs are changing. Corbin is Dans la rue’s delegate to the Learning Community, a national coalition seeking ways to raise public awareness and break down the stigmas associated with mental illness. And she said the centre for street youth will soon begin a welcome partnership with the psychiatry department at Notre Dame hospital to assist young people experiencing their first psychosis.

But Corbin said there’s another big challenge: getting young people, especially the males who make up 60 per cent of Dans la rue’s clientele, to admit they may need help.

“There’s the whole machismo thing. ‘I’m the one that’s in charge.’ … The whole invincibility of life comes crashing down and you don’t know what to do anymore. So you end up in panic mode,” Corbin said.

“It is hard to break the taboo of a mental illness and see it as an illness and not as a weakness. Someone has a broken leg, you go and get it treated. Well, if you have depression or anxiety or schizophrenia, you go and get it treated.”

It’s difficult enough for many adults to face up to mental illness.

“Add to that the whole ‘I have to be strong’ and all the rest of it when you are young,” she said.

In Saskatoon you have the race aspect as well.  I have listened to more than one mental health professional tell me that those who are aboriginal and from the west side of Saskatoon get far worse mental health care than those that are white and from the suburbs.  It’s really frustrating because there isn’t anything we can do about it. 

I have listened to members on both sides of the Legislative Assembly admit to the problems in the mental health system in Saskatchewan.  While there has been progress (and mistakes) made by both the NDP and now the Saskatchewan Party, there is a long way to go.  If there was one bit of advice that I could give Premier Brad Wall and the future NDP leader, it would be to form a bi-partisan committee to fix and monitor mental healthcare in Saskatchewan.  Take it out of the realm of partisan politics and just fix it.  They are Saskatchewan’s most vulnerable people, they use up a lot of the health budget, use a disproportionate amount of resources for housing and social services but it is also something that as a province we can fix. 

The flipside of it is that if we don’t do something about it, it becomes a problem that can grow out of hand as other jurisdictions have experienced.

Column: Homeless need not just shelter

My latest in The StarPhoenix

I enjoy winters in Saskatoon. There is Wintershines, the Meewasin skating rink, turning down Blades tickets because I don’t want to drive out to the Credit Union Centre, and reminiscing about when Blackstrap used to be open.

No matter how cold it is at the end of the day, I go home to a warm house and to a dog that’s glad I’ve returned home.

But not everyone lives that way. When the Occupy Saskatoon protesters broke camp more than a week ago, a few decided to move from Friendship Park to Gabriel Dumont Park and live in tents.

I am not an outdoorsman, but I noted that none of these tents were designed for winter. I cannot imagine how cold and uncomfortable it must be to spend the night in the tents, no matter how many blankets they have.

Sadly, these aren’t the first people who have tried to take on Saskatoon’s winter outdoors and they won’t be the last. Every year, there are some who don’t know they have other choices or are told that they don’t.

Every year, when it is -40 C, we have men showing up at the shelter who are homeless and, because of funding arrangements from the province, don’t qualify for emergency funding.

Over the years we have realized that many people are sleeping in abandoned or condemned apartments. At -20 C you can generate enough heat from blankets to survive, but at -40 C with no electricity or fire, they come to the shelter out of desperation and hope that someone can help them.

There are also those who simply decide to take on the winter as an act of self-determination. As the recent Saskatoon Housing and Homelessness Plan points out, for some the stigma of living on social assistance is huge and they choose to live off the grid.

Each winter we hear from concerned citizens who want us to do something about a tent set up somewhere. I visit the tent, chat with the person and offer a warm bed and food, and am told: "I’m doing quite well."

I can’t force someone to come inside in frigid weather so we keep the invitation open. But they prefer their own path for the very reason that it is their own path. As I hear their stories, I realize that having a house, a pet and coming home to someone who loves them has never been a part of their lives.

A couch to sleep on, a garage to warm up in or an emergency shelter bed has been all they’ve known for a long time. So, what difference does it make sleeping in a tent along 22nd Street?

At least it’s their tent.

For years when I talked and read about homelessness, I thought it was about shelter. It’s not.

Homelessness is a lack of home, a place to go to be safe, find someone who loves you and you love back, and a place where you have connections to others. A shelter that doesn’t have any of that is just a place to crash and stay warm.

The Saskatoon Housing and Homelessness Plan’s report helped clarify the difference between shelter and home for me. As I read it, I noticed a story of a mother talking in a focus group about renting a floor of a house so that her children could attend school. There was drug activity on the floors above and below.

That’s not a home and none of us would want to raise our children in such a place, but it was all she could afford.

It was better than some other places she had seen.

Another participant spoke of an immigrant family who moved to Saskatoon. Within a week, their apartment was broken into and their children were being bullied.

The plan notes that it’s common to find up to six people living in a two-bedroom apartment. In my own neighbourhood it’s not that uncommon to find two-bedroom houses with up to 10 people living in them. How do any of those situations come close to being a home?

They don’t and that why we have people living in Gabriel Dumont Park, in the trees along 22nd Street, and in makeshift shelters along the railway tracks.

The solution isn’t emergency shelters, but a place where they can find what they are looking for – whether that’s safety, friends or just a quiet place to call home.

Until we manage to build the affordable and social housing that can make this happen, we will have people freezing outside because to them, it’s not any worse than all their other options.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Homeless need more than just shelter

My column today in The StarPhoenix

I enjoy winters in Saskatoon. There is Wintershines, the Meewasin skating rink, turning down Blades tickets because I don’t want to drive out to the Credit Union Centre, and reminiscing about when Blackstrap used to be open.

No matter how cold it is at the end of the day, I go home to a warm house and to a dog that’s glad I’ve returned home.

But not everyone lives that way. When the Occupy Saskatoon protesters broke camp more than a week ago, a few decided to move from Friendship Park to Gabriel Dumont Park and live in tents.

I am not an outdoorsman, but I noted that none of these tents were designed for winter. I cannot imagine how cold and uncomfortable it must be to spend the night in the tents, no matter how many blankets they have.

Sadly, these aren’t the first people who have tried to take on Saskatoon’s winter outdoors and they won’t be the last. Every year, there are some who don’t know they have other choices or are told that they don’t.

Every year, when it is -40 C, we have men showing up at the shelter who are homeless and, because of funding arrangements from the province, don’t qualify for emergency funding.

Over the years we have realized that many people are sleeping in abandoned or condemned apartments. At -20 C you can generate enough heat from blankets to survive, but at -40 C with no electricity or fire, they come to the shelter out of desperation and hope that someone can help them.

There are also those who simply decide to take on the winter as an act of self-determination. As the recent Saskatoon Housing and Homelessness Plan points out, for some the stigma of living on social assistance is huge and they choose to live off the grid.

Each winter we hear from concerned citizens who want us to do something about a tent set up somewhere. I visit the tent, chat with the person and offer a warm bed and food, and am told: "I’m doing quite well."

I can’t force someone to come inside in frigid weather so we keep the invitation open. But they prefer their own path for the very reason that it is their own path. As I hear their stories, I realize that having a house, a pet and coming home to someone who loves them has never been a part of their lives.

A couch to sleep on, a garage to warm up in or an emergency shelter bed has been all they’ve known for a long time. So, what difference does it make sleeping in a tent along 22nd Street?

At least it’s their tent.

For years when I talked and read about homelessness, I thought it was about shelter. It’s not.

Homelessness is a lack of home, a place to go to be safe, find someone who loves you and you love back, and a place where you have connections to others. A shelter that doesn’t have any of that is just a place to crash and stay warm.

The Saskatoon Housing and Homelessness Plan’s report helped clarify the difference between shelter and home for me. As I read it, I noticed a story of a mother talking in a focus group about renting a floor of a house so that her children could attend school. There was drug activity on the floors above and below.

That’s not a home and none of us would want to raise our children in such a place, but it was all she could afford.

It was better than some other places she had seen.

Another participant spoke of an immigrant family who moved to Saskatoon. Within a week, their apartment was broken into and their children were being bullied.

The plan notes that it’s common to find up to six people living in a two-bedroom apartment. In my own neighbourhood it’s not that uncommon to find two-bedroom houses with up to 10 people living in them. How do any of those situations come close to being a home?

They don’t and that why we have people living in Gabriel Dumont Park, in the trees along 22nd Street, and in makeshift shelters along the railway tracks.

The solution isn’t emergency shelters, but a place where they can find what they are looking for – whether that’s safety, friends or just a quiet place to call home.

Until we manage to build the affordable and social housing that can make this happen, we will have people freezing outside because to them, it’s not any worse than all their other options.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

The Criminalization of Homelessness

This column by Barbara Ehrenreich just killed me inside.

The current prohibition on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s, along with the ferocious growth of the financial industry (Wall Street and all its tributaries throughout the nation). That was also the era in which we stopped being a nation that manufactured much beyond weightless, invisible "financial products," leaving the old industrial working class to carve out a livelihood at places like Walmart.

As it turned out, the captains of the new "casino economy"—the stock brokers and investment bankers—were highly sensitive, one might say finicky, individuals, easily offended by having to step over the homeless in the streets or bypass them in commuter train stations. In an economy where a centimillionaire could turn into a billionaire overnight, the poor and unwashed were a major buzzkill. Starting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York, city after city passed "broken windows" or "quality of life" ordinances making it dangerous for the homeless to loiter or, in some cases, even look "indigent," in public spaces.

No one has yet tallied all the suffering occasioned by this crackdown—the deaths from cold and exposure—but "Criminalizing Crisis" offers this story about a homeless pregnant woman in Columbia, South Carolina:

During daytime hours, when she could not be inside of a shelter, she attempted to spend time in a museum and was told to leave. She then attempted to sit on a bench outside the museum and was again told to relocate. In several other instances, still during her pregnancy, the woman was told that she could not sit in a local park during the day because she would be "squatting." In early 2011, about six months into her pregnancy, the homeless woman began to feel unwell, went to a hospital, and delivered a stillborn child.

Well before Tahrir Square was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and even before the recent recession, homeless Americans had begun to act in their own defense, creating organized encampments, usually tent cities, in vacant lots or wooded areas. These communities often feature various elementary forms of self-governance: food from local charities has to be distributed, latrines dug, rules—such as no drugs, weapons, or violence—enforced. With all due credit to the Egyptian democracy movement, the Spanish indignados, and rebels all over the world, tent cities are the domestic progenitors of the American occupation movement.

There is nothing "political" about these settlements of the homeless—no signs denouncing greed or visits from left-wing luminaries—but they have been treated with far less official forbearance than the occupation encampments of the "American autumn." LA’s Skid Row endures constant police harassment, for example, but when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to nearby Occupy LA.

All over the country, in the last few years, police have moved in on the tent cities of the homeless, one by one, from Seattle to Wooster, Ohio, Sacramento to Providence, in raids that often leave the former occupants without even their minimal possessions. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, last summer, a charity outreach worker explained the forcible dispersion of a local tent city by saying: "The city will not tolerate a tent city. That’s been made very clear to us. The camps have to be out of sight."

What occupiers from all walks of life are discovering, at least every time they contemplate taking a leak, is that to be homeless in America is to live like a fugitive. The destitute are our own native-born "illegals," facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. They are not supposed to soil public space with their urine, their feces, or their exhausted bodies. Nor are they supposed to spoil the landscape with their unusual wardrobe choices or body odors. They are, in fact, supposed to die, and preferably to do so without leaving a corpse for the dwindling public sector to transport, process, and burn.

Here are my issues and some ideas of what we can do tackle them.

At work every place I can put a bed, I have put a bed.  When I started five years ago, there would be 20 guys in the shelter some nights, many in private rooms.  Now we have 70 in there.  Our lounge space is designed for maybe 15 people.  We open up our dining room in the evening for additional space.  We also have to shut down the dorms during the day so we can clean.  As tough as it is, we need to shut down to get the guys up in the morning and get working towards moving out of the shelter.  If we don’t have a shut down time, some of our clients would simply stay in bed when what they need to be doing is heading to Social Services, heading to day labour or looking for work (while day labour is hard, most find permanent jobs while working there) or out looking for an apartment.  You would be surprised at the amount of guys that just want society to take care of them for the rest of their life and they need to be motivated to move along. 

On top of that is that we have two janitors who are cleaning all of the time.  Beds need to changed, linen has to be washed, floors have to washed and a lot of garbage has to be dealt with and the line between personal belongings and garbage is a fine line.  There is hidden vodka to be found (and tossed) and drugs to be found and disposed of.  If we had adequate lounge space, this wouldn’t be a problem but it is.

We do make accommodations if the weather is bad… if it is too crappy for the staff to go for a walk, it’s too bad for our clients and during the cold, it’s announced the day before so there is no stress over us being closed.  The same thing if guys are sick.  The flu is a part of life and we don’t make guys get doctor’s notes but if a guy is sick for a couple of days, we send him to the doctor for his own sake if he is not making an improvement.

Washrooms are another issue.  We don’t have public washrooms except during meal times.  Over the years we have people shooting up in our washrooms, hiding knives, drinking alcohol, drinking hand sanitizer, and even having sex (don’t ask, it brings back a lot of trauma).  We could open it up more but then I need to hire more staff to clean it and sadly supervise it.  Some staff let people come in and use the chapel washroom but I can’t count how many needles we have pulled out of there.  There has been crap on the walls, doors, and roof during that time and it’s just vandalism but it’s a huge issue.  Our one washroom has a wall covering that you need a diamond drill to get through and that was because it was just destroyed and that was during meal times.  I have heard a plumber’s snake grind through the flushed needles and the clogs that come with it.  I understand why people don’t want to open their washrooms up to the public.  Yet at the same time where is the nearest public washroom?  Midtown Plaza?  Tim Horton’s?  We tend to open it if we know the person but then we have people yelling at us for favouritism. 

While I can’t change the architecture of where I work, I can change some of the policies and procedures to make things easier for those that are homeless.  Last month I met with CUMFI about the problem of those being outside in winter.  Here is what I am trying to do about it.

  • For those that are cold and outside and don’t want to come in for shelter services, we are opening our lounge and using it for an all night drop in spot for homeless men and women.  Yes there will be coffee (decaf), soup, sandwiches, and maybe some KD.  If we can move a person into a shelter bed, we will.  If not, we are cool to do it on their time.  I had a client live for a year in the parking lot of the Centre.  I used to bring him coffee in the morning.  Every day we would chat until he was read to move inside.  It eventually happened (and then we screwed up and he moved out but he came back a couple of days later) and he has been a big part of our community and life since then.
  • Staff will be expanding the hours of our clothes cave for winter gear.  They do this anyways but it sounds impressive when I write it down.  This way if someone needs winter clothes, they can get winter clothes.
  • Making it easier to get free meals and making it easier for select agencies to refer people for free meals.  For men and women on the street and are hungry, we will find a way to get some calories in them no matter what time of the day it is.
  • We are giving The Lighthouse some of our mats so they have extra capacity (that we will fill).  We have a great relationship with The Lighthouse and any way we can help them, we will.  We know that they will do (and have done) the same for us.
  • We are working with the Saskatoon Police on ways we can relieve some of the pressure on their drunk tank.  We can’t do a lot but hopefully we can work together at making sure those that are manageably drunk can have a place to sleep as Larson House often fills up at 2:00 p.m.  This isn’t a change as the Saskatoon Police Service has always done a good job in bringing in cold and almost frozen men and women for help but we are doing an education piece for them so they understand what we can do.  Police officers in the past have actually offered to pay for guys to stay with us which is nice but totally unnecessary.  It does speak to the degree that officers do care about homeless men and women in Saskatoon and we want to make sure that they know of all of the resources they have at their disposal.  One thing that I have learned is that the one bit of information that I need as a frontline worker may not always get to me and if an officer has that information and can give it to me which helps us make a better decision or a referral based on his/her knowledge of the client and resources, we all come out ahead.
  • Doing a survey of abandoned buildings.  This one could get me in trouble but when it is –40, men come to us who are on what is called Transitional Employment Allowance or TEA for short.  TEA is a government of Saskatchewan program that is designed to transition you from one job to another.  It works but it also means you don’t get emergency services so if you are homeless, Social Services won’t help you.  It’s messed up that way.  For years I could never figure it out why they only came in when it was extreme weather and then it clicked in, you can stay warm in an abandoned apartment building at –20 with blankets but not at –40.  We started to ask and that is exactly what it was.  I am not sure what I am going to do with this information since disclosing it could hurt guys even more but I hate the idea that because of a stupid Government of Saskatchewan policy, people can freeze to death.
  • Expanding our data collection on the causes and geography of homelessness.  In Saskatchewan, all anyone cares about is our bed count.   That’s all I get asked.  Vacancy rates which only tells a small part of the story and ignores the problems behind why they are using the shelter.  I don’t know how to tell that story… well I do but not well and that kind of irritates me.

I am not happy with the solutions but they make the best use of limited resources and hopefully it will make a difference to those on the streets at night.  We have a long way to go and if you want to help, send me an email.

Column: Rent Control is Bad Policy

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

On a cold day in February, the NDP breached the topic of rent controls in Saskatchewan, with party Leader Dwain Lingenfelter calling for "next generation" rent controls that cap increases or only come into effect when vacancy rates are extremely low.

Justice Minister Don Morgan gave what has become a pretty standard response from everyone who opposes rent controls: "We think it’s a disincentive to having developers put more property on the market."

Despite a lot of opposition to the idea, the NDP has kept talking about the idea, partly because many across Saskatchewan are overwhelmed by the rent they pay.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation points out that rent in Saskatoon increased 10 per cent annually from 2006 to 2010. This brought up the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment to $950 a month in 2011 and will slightly increase to $975 in 2012. While a lot of apartments have come on the market, CMHC forecasts a net migration of more than 5,000 people to Saskatoon in each of the next two years, which means that rents will remain high, driven by strong demand for both new houses and apartments.

Higher rents are not always a bad thing. For a long time, Saskatoon had rent that was well below the national average. Increasing rental rates gave property owners a chance to make some needed improvements to their properties.

The quality of apartments has increased dramatically since the boom started and we started to see rental increases. Those improvements did come with a price for those living in the rental units. Apartments that rented for $650 five years ago are now more than $1,000. Even CMHC points out that Saskatoon has become a much more expensive place to live, which hurts our competitiveness as a city.

Rent control is the quickest way to solve the problem, and versions of it have been used in growing cities across North America.

To promote investment in new apartments, rent control often exempts new construction. New York City exempts apartments built after 1974 from rent control. The idea is that landlords can recoup their investment long before the rent is capped. For buildings constructed after 1974, landlords can opt into the program in exchange for tax breaks.

The problem with this is that, at the point where a building needs reinvestment as well as new revenue to pay for it, it loses that option and older buildings often deteriorate quickly.

Another approach is rent stabilization. Landlords are free to set prices of empty suites at whatever rent they can get. Once an apartment is rented, future increases are capped at a set rate. The idea is that it gives some security for both tenants and landlords.

This protects renters from unrealistic and unexpected rental increases, and it benefits landlords by providing tenants an incentive to stay and be responsible. Rate equalization also serves as an incentive for improvements in many cities. Landlords in many cities can apply for rental increases above the equalized amount if they make improvements to buildings. This can cut both ways, as tenants can apply for rent reductions if their apartments are not kept up to code.

Sadly, it never works that way in the real world.

As has been documented in San Francisco and other booming American cities, landlords were holding formal interviews or demanding credit reports (something we now see in Saskatoon) before choosing tenants because there are never enough rent-controlled units to meet the demand. Those who are most likely to benefit from a rent-controlled apartment are often the last to get it. Economist Paul Krugman put it this way: "In uncontrolled housing markets, landlords don’t want grovelling. They would rather have money."

Even if you are lucky enough to get a rent-controlled apartment, you also have some landlords looking for ingenious ways to evict clients so the apartment can be rented out at a higher price.

In Saskatchewan, rent control may solve a shortterm political problem, but it doesn’t solve longer term housing and economic problems. With rental increases predicted to rise incrementally in 2012, it may not even be needed.

What is needed is a continuation of the programs that address the supply issue. Existing programs such as the capital grants for affordable rental units, tax abatements for multi-unit housing, and forgivable loans for the creation of secondary suites have paid off. The rental supplement helps meet the gap between high rents and lower income families.

Rent control may be good politics, and in the middle of an election campaign that is important. However, it remains poor economic policy. There are better alternatives for both renters and our cities.

jordon@jordoncooper.com

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

Column: Sask. homeless out of sight

My latest in The StarPhoenix

The Star Phoenix logo When I started working at the Salvation Army homeless shelter, we had two dorms for men. While working at our front desk, I had clear instructions to fill up our larger dorm first as a resident in the second dorm didn’t play well with others.

We had filled up enough that by 2007, we added another large dorm. It filled up on the second night, stayed full for almost three years. There still wasn’t enough space, so we started to refer the homeless men to the Lighthouse’s emergency shelter by suppertime because we had nowhere else to put them. If that shelter filled up, we put men on mats on the floor.

One of the reasons why the shelters stayed full was that after getting here, many men could not take the next steps to securing an apartment because of their mental health or addictions issues. As hard as it is for the men to find housing, the problem is even worse for single moms with children.

For generations, the idea was that if you get your act together, you will be able to find a place to call home. Across North America, being clean, sober and presentable were prerequisites to finding housing, with the predictable result: Those who were not clean and sober lived on the streets.

One of the first to challenge this thinking was Sam Tsemberis, who formed Pathways to Housing in New York City He said the proper order is to first find housing and then deal with the other issues.

Instead of waiting for a client to get his or her life in order, Tsemberis found and furnished an apartment in a neighbourhood the person liked, got the client settled in and then provided followup supports to help the person integrate into his or her surroundings.

The City of Toronto runs a similar program and its research shows that once people are housed, things change for the better: Mental and physical health improve, alcohol and drug use decline, and the associated arrests and emergency room visits decline. It also found that clients were using a family doctor and/or accessing psychiatric care, and dealing with problems before they contributed to homelessness.

Similar results are seen in other North American cities that use a housingfirst approach.

How was it accomplished? By spending less than before.

Toronto’s research shows that it’s less expensive to put someone in an affordable apartment (at $22 to $32 a night) than it is to house that person in a shelter ($54), motel ($80), jail cell ($143), emergency room ($212), or to treat the client as a psychiatric in-patient ($615 a night). What it also found was that providing housing and followup supports (regular, in-apartment visits) cost $10 a day more during that first year, which is still cheaper than the other shelter options.

You have much lower housing costs, a decrease in self-destructive activities, and an increase of quality of life – all for less money than what existing programs and systems would cost.

As for capital costs, most of the infrastructure already is in place. Public housing plays a role and the bulk of non-supported apartments came from the private sector. In Toronto, 68 per cent of clients choose private sector landlords, who have found them to be profitable tenants.

Iain de Jong, the former manager of the Streets to Home program, explained during a 2008 presentation in Saskatoon that clients tended to stay in one apartment for an extended period, the rent was paid by the government, the tenants weren’t very demanding and there was outside supports if there was a problem. Once that became known, the market provided the required increased number of rental units.

So why isn’t Saskatchewan on board? The problem tends to be hidden in this province. The encampments of homeless are small and out of the way: Families in campgrounds are out of sight and out of mind; guys sleeping in condemned buildings come and go undiscovered, and fall between the cracks in the system.

While there is money to be saved, these savings are across departments. That means you need to get a buy-in from Health, Justice, and Social Services officials. It’s as if we have spread out the problem across too many departments that no one notices when you are trapped in the problem. It’s overwhelming.

Progress in Calgary and Edmonton was driven in a large part by the private sector, but also in a big way by the Alberta government pulling people together and having the will and the courage to believe it could end homelessness in a decade.

If Saskatchewan can find the same political will, it could happen here even sooner.

Depression haunts homeless children

From Minnesota Public Radio

A new report by the Wilder Foundation estimates 4,500 children in Minnesota spend time in shelters on any given night — the highest number since the surveys began 20 years ago.

Those children are often haunted by depression, the study shows. Whether homeless children and teens get help and support has a big impact on whether they end up homeless as adults.

The Wilder research shows about half of all homeless children in Minnesota are younger than the age of 6. The organization found that children who grow up under this kind of stress have lasting physical and emotional problems that are hard to overcome.

The Wilder report found that one-third of homeless parents were homeless themselves as children, and 35 percent of homeless parents report struggling with depression.

Nothing in the report surprised me but from what we see in Saskatchewan, it’s a much higher percentage of children under six and from the amount of anti-depressants I see, it’s a higher percentage of people struggling with mental health issues although I wonder if that is because of Medicare and the supplemental health insurance that families on social assistance receive.