Region has to face up to homelessness: author

Duane Hicks

As he makes his way around Northwestern Ontario to promote his book, “The Homelessness Project,” Kenora author Jon Thompson is concerned with more than sales—he wants to foster a greater understanding of a problem and get others to take action.
While proceeds from the sale of his book probably will end up with Thompson making a $4,000 donation to the Northwestern Ontario Food Bank, that’s not the kind of change he is interested in making, Thompson said in an interview during a book signing Sunday afternoon at Northwoods Gallery & Gifts here.
“The change that the book has had on my community and broader communities has nearly brought me to tears,” he noted. “In the last chapter I talk about how you can’t pretend you know, you can’t pretend you understand.
“If you tell somebody, ‘Okay, now you’re only going to use this to buy this, and not to buy that, that’s not empowering that person,” he reasoned.
“You know what you do best. Instead of working at a Bingo or whatever it is we’re going to do to raise money, why don’t we have people who build homes building homes and sharing those skills,” added Thompson. “I’ve had people come up to me that say, ‘I know the nutritional value of food donated from grocery stores is not as high as it could be, so I have a garden and pick stuff and bring it into the shelter every day.’
“There was a guy who read the book . . . and moved to Mexico to start building houses for the homeless. There was I guy I work with who used it to learn how to read, and there’s nothing more touching than that,” he said.
Thompson explained he’s promoting “a new take on activism” since one of the biggest problems for activist communities and organizers is how to integrate people who want to help.
“All you know as an activist is what you do,” said Thompson. “If someone comes up to you and says, ‘What can I do for you? You say, ‘I don’t know. Put up posters? I don’t know what you do?’
“And so I am trying to have people take some introspection and say, ‘I know how I personally can help. I know what my skill sets are, and I have relationships that will be complimentary if we work together to bring these ideas to fruition.’”
Thompson said problem of homelessness—which, in fact, is a consequence of a web of factors ranging from mental illness to drug addiction to the abuse of women—is very real in Northwestern Ontario. And while some cities like Kenora and Thunder Bay have services like methadone clinics and women’s shelters, other municipalities need them badly.
There’s no question government assistance is required in these areas, but Thompson noted the residents in these communities also can help make a change.
“I’m trying to mobilize,” he explained. “I am trying to make people realize that these issues are all connected, and I am trying to make them realize if they spend 15 minutes a day contributing to the democracy, we will all be ‘rich.’”
In fact, Thompson said Northwestern Ontario communities have a tradition of self-reliance and there’s no reason they can’t take a more activist route.
“What the mainstream media calls ‘northern alienation’ is the least interesting part of that phenomenon,” he remarked. “When you go to the bars and coffee shops, you hear, ‘Toronto ignores us’ and ‘We never get anything.’
“That’s not even very interesting because we don’t have the population to make an impact on democracy. This is a fact,” he stressed.
“But the interesting part of this cultural phenomenon is it has been like this for hundreds of years. The fur companies owned this land, the government didn’t want anything to do with it. The companies built these towns because the government didn’t want anything to do with it.
“So the culture is such in Northwestern Ontario, and I am proud to say this, that you get in and you get your hands dirty and you get it done. Because there isn’t help coming.
“That makes me incredibly optimistic,” he continued. “We don’t have a democratic culture where you see people marching in the streets with placards. We have a democratic culture where people get up and do things.
“It’s really motivational and I am humbled by it constantly.”
Thompson said he’s found that people who don’t face homelessness and other social problems regularly often have a difficult time truly understanding the plight of the less fortunate, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Other people’s situations—they can understand if they ask. There’s lots to learn from everybody,” he stressed. “The important thing is asking people what they need, and not judging what they need.”
With the economy “tanking” in Ontario and elsewhere, Thompson does foresee hard times for Northwestern Ontario, which already has had its share of mill closures and the like.
“We haven’t seen anything yet,” he warned, pointing out Northern Development and Mines minister Michael Gravelle last week announced an appraisal of abandoned homes in Terrace Bay, and Thompson personally knows of people in Schreiber who gave away their house.
“The money that the laid-off mill workers have been making on severance is about to run out. These people are going from hypothetically screwed to actually screwed, and that is going to have a domino effect on all our social needs organizations,” Thomspon argued.
“Our municipalities have been bracing for that, but they’re not funded for it.
“It’s really going to be ugly if we can’t raise the attention of the provincial government and local taxpayers that there’s a connection between all of these issues and crime,” he added. “We’re expecting tax levies throughout the region and people have to understand what is at risk if we don’t accept the social needs.”
“The Homelessness Project”—a book which chronicles life on the streets in Northwestern Ontario—already has been launched in Kenora, Dryden, and Sioux Lookout.
Thompson’s book tour will wrap up this Saturday (Nov. 29) in Thunder Bay, where he will present a donation of the profits to the Northwestern Ontario Food Bank.