My friend Mark Horvath just uploaded this heartbreaking story of homelessness in St. Louis. It’s not a typical story in Saskatoon (thank goodness) but it does happen even here.
It’s been about a year since I took some extended time away from work. There has been the occasional weekend away but a combination of Wendy’s depression last year pushing all of us to almost the breaking point (as an aside, it pains me to read of Heather and Jon’s marriage issues as their marriage was an inspiration in knowing the depression would not beat us as a family) and a lot of stress at where I was working. The only time I got away and some time to myself was when I had heart problems last summer and that wasn’t exactly relaxing. Since I started at The Lighthouse, most days are 10 – 12 hours and when I am at home, I am working. I have always prided myself on being there for the boys but there was a six day stretch where I didn’t see either boy and then I followed that up with another five day stretch. While work has been less stressful with some new excellent staff coming onboard, the hours are still long and this line of work has a lot of conflict. There is conflict with some residents although that is heartbreaking, it isn’t stressful.
The stressful part is working within the system that really is dysfunctional. There are multiple agencies and as a colleague said to me this week, they only care about their stovepipe. The bigger the bureaucracy, the more extensive the rules and the more rules there are, the harder it is for people in the margins to get help from them and the harder it is that it is to help them.
Richard’s a cool guy (who has now a long term room) but when you think about this story, Social Services in Humboldt sent him by bus to Saskatoon without supports, prior arrangements, or even to check out of the shelters could house him (before you defend Social Services, I verified those facts last year) and you get a bit of an idea what we deal with. Outside of Richard’s health problems, there are no other significant contributing factors to his homelessness and yet he was sent to live on the streets in a strange city. There is even more government dysfunction to the story than he says here. I don’t have his permission to say it but it’s so insane, you wouldn’t believe it anyway.
Then there is Rhoda’s story which was also interviewed by Mark Horvath while he was in Saskatoon last summer.
She mentioned the tent that she was discharged earlier to. Here is it.
It’s in a clearing where some of people Saskatoon’s homeless live. I know that we like to think we don’t have homeless encampments but we have two large ones and a smaller one in the city that people live in, take care of each other in, and sadly get really sick in. When I originally found out about these spots, my reaction was that this is where people go to do drugs in or just won’t conform. No, most of it that they just don’t have anywhere else to live. In the winter they find places indoors… abandoned buildings, sheds, or garages. Some couch surf. Most of the people are “off-the-grid” or in other words, they aren’t on Social Services and are stuck living outside, even if they have HIV. It’s crazy.
Again, just take a second to think about this for a second, our hospitals are legally not allowed to discharge to the street but a doctor decided that it was okay to send her back to this tent, even though she had HIV and was just hospitalized for something serious. I wish this was a rogue doctor but it isn’t. I am not saying that all doctors are like this but some sadly are. A couple of years ago I was invited to speak to some hospital social workers and during the meeting some started to cry and started to talk about what they are expected to do. As a couple of them said, “it’s abusive working conditions” because of the expectation of them to clear out hospital beds. I know social admissions (admission to a hospital for a reason other than being sick) are on the upswing but discharging anyone to this is just wrong. One agency in an attempt to help it’s clients even allowed people to sleep in a metal shed in the back of their location because they had no where else. I don’t know the “R” value of metal sheds but I am assuming it’s pretty close to being colder than outside in the winter and hotter in the summer.
Some people don’t have even this and I was reminded of a former client who committed suicide this winter after an enduring an extended period of absolute homelessness. She had mental health issues and I am sure that is the real reason but she was on the streets and in the cold for a long, long time. In the meetings that I am too often a part of, I keep hearing, “someone is going to die”. Well it happens, it is just that “homelessness” isn’t recognized as a cause of death. Alcohol, drug use, or mental health issues are blamed and we can keep looking the other way. The worst part of it was that this was a death that I may have been able to prevent if I had decided to take a more involved role in but like a lot of people, it wasn’t my job either.
What’s the solution to the encampments and people being discharged to the streets (other than firing some doctors and social workers)? The big picture is that the province needs to make someone responsible for homelessness and housing and right now no one is. Quite a few departments have initiatives to ensure it doesn’t happen which means that with many people in charge, no one is in charge and that is why someone with HIV is living in a tent in an encampment in Saskatoon.
I can’t fix that but I can create a space that has an extremely low thresh hold for entry which will at least connect people up to supports and stop them from having to live in places like this (there are always going to be some that want to live like this and I can’t do anything about that). It would be a place of last resort for those that are banned elsewhere. It would concentrate on keeping people alive more than providing comfort with the idea (a gamble perhaps) that once people were comfortable enough with staff and others that they would be willing to take some positive steps in securing housing.
The problem? No one wants this kind of service around them and no one wants to fund it because many of the people who would use the service scare people (they scare me occasionally), are very violent or just vile and angry. One guy we tried to work with this winter went on and on about his desire to have sex and violently rape female staff and residents. It’s obviously a mental health disorder but he wasn’t being treated and yet his IQ was so low he wasn’t able to get help for himself. While at one hand he was a risk, he was also a victim and he doesn’t deserve to freeze to death.
In other cities that have free shelter, it sadly gives an incentive for social workers to not give people emergency services and so you actually make the problem worse for others. In case you think that professional social workers wouldn’t do it, I heard lots of stories of clients coming to a shelter with instructions from their worker to lie to staff in order to get a lower subsidized rate. The reason I knew is that they would confess to me because their conscience wouldn’t allow them to do it and they didn’t want to get caught. I can’t imagine what would happen if there was a place that was free. Well actually I can and it would be an excuse for more people not to do their jobs.
As for why it won’t get funded… the cost benefits are large but they would happen in a different department than what would fund it. No community really wants to get behind it because of the fear of what can happen and because people die in small enough numbers that we really don’t have to care about it.