It Takes A Village

I was having a catch-up coffee with a friend quite some time ago, back when we could do such things with ease and a sense of safety. The conversation veered off into a discussion about poverty. My friend made the comment that she worked hard in life and had a pension and why should she pay for people who didn’t work hard. I was stunned. I didn’t know how to respond. I know we don’t always see things through the same lens, but I was shocked by her fundamental unawareness of her life’s opportunity and privilege. CBC Radio’s The Current recently aired a program about homelessness around the world and it got me thinking back to that over-a-cup-of-coffee conversation.

Statistics Canada reported in January 2021 that “more than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in any given year”, with Toronto claiming top spot in terms of numbers. In 2013, reported Red Deer and Calgary as having the highest number of homeless per capita. The statistics have likely shifted since 2013. In July of 2021, Community Solutions reported Medicine Hat became the first city to “functionally end chronic homelessness”. What does this mean? It means three or fewer individuals endured homelessness for three consecutive months. Impressive. How did they do it? Hard work and thinking outside the box.

Jaime Rogers manages Medicine Hat’s Homeless and Housing Development. She spoke on CBC Radio about the organization’s policy of housing first. The reason for their success is credited to the collaborative approach Rogers and her team take. They bring everyone to the table to engage in conversation and seeking solutions that work. Among those at the table are former homeless individuals who can address firsthand what works and what doesn’t. Medicine Hat has been successful because they are willing to react quickly to urgent needs, are able to change directions mid-stride, don’t rely on annual statistics to set policies but instead react to individual situations, by creating a war room to respond on the fly, are ready to pivot and respond to the data to solve complex problems, and they are prepared to engage in “difficult conversations”, explained Rogers.

Many organizations throughout the world are striving to end homelessness and to address the urgent needs of those who are struggling for survival on the street. Built for Zero Canada and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (founded in 2011) and Medicine Hat’s team all share the same vision – to meet every citizen’s fundamental human right to a home.

We too often take the position of blaming the homeless for their circumstance. Some Canadian cities engaged in anti-homeless measures at one time. Abbotsford sprayed a park with chicken manure while other cities embedded metal spikes under bridges and in building alcoves, benches were sloped and dividers used to prevent anyone lying down. Thankfully, there has been a shift in such tactics.

Housing First is Finland’s approach in solving homelessness in that country. The program has been in place since 1985. They have 18,000 apartments in 57 cities/municipalities in its mission of “home for all”. Homelessness has decreased in Finland while it has risen in all other European Union countries. The Housing First strategy has been adopted by municipalities globally by identifying that an individual’s first need is for shelter, a home, and then steps are taken to address the reason(s) the person is homeless. Finland requires that all housing developments include a minimum of 25% of affordable, social housing. Finland’s success is founded on the realization that keeping people homeless is always more costly than providing homes and it relies on political understanding. Success requires “politicians who have an understanding of human dignity”, says Juha Kaakinen, the architect of Finland’s Housing First.

I would like to think we are moving toward a more equitable society, where we are able to recognize that our doing well doesn’t preclude helping those who are struggling. Financial wealth comes with an obligation, and many recognize that responsibility, but not all. It takes a village, says the African proverb … and it most certainly takes an entire village to solve homelessness. We all deserve and need human dignity to be our best self, especially those who live in poverty.