Homelessness in Canada
Describe and discuss the challenges and policy implications of defining homelessness
The common stereotype of the homeless is based on those in direct visibility – often unwashed, crazed individuals that roam aimlessly through the streets seeking whatever pittance afforded to them by the passing public. This is a reflection of absolute homelessness – those who live on the street or in emergency shelters – but it is argued that this only represents the “tip of the iceberg” (Echenberg & Jensen, 2008) not to mention begin facetious and misinformed. Two further categories that should be considered or those that are concealed and in relative homelessness – living in places not of their own or are in conditions that are unfit or intermediate (Girard, 2006) – and can be given temporal qualities such as the chronic, cyclical or temporary (Being, et al., 1999). While this may expose more of the issue and help delineate between particular groups in order to define policy approaches, it remains broad and too exclusive definition whereas members can easily move between or out of groups over time depending on a number of factors (Springer, 2011).
The definition of homelessness also hinges on the bias of those whose responsibility it is to develop policy and approach the issue – often influenced by the perception of the public who prefer to pass blame to the homeless rather than adopt social and fiscal responsibility (Layton, 2008, 42-44). This creates a schism between those in the position to provide aid and those who are in need of it – with governments creating a minimalist construct of the issue as to limit negative public response (Chapham, 1990). Neo-conservatives Mulroney, Harris and Lastman took views to appease the public sentiment (Layton, 2008, 39-45) and curtailed social assistance, distancing themselves under the premise that homelessness is a “choice” and it is up to the individual to mete out their own fate (Fallis & Murray, 1990) or by out-right dismissing the argument – insisting it doesn’t exist or that unfettered market forces will ultimately solve the issue by removing the impediment to competitiveness made by public welfare spending (Harvey, 1989, 7-16).
The inability and will to develop a holistic definition of homelessness – coerced by public and political leanings bent toward neo-liberalist ideals – leads to a statistic that is immeasurable and thus impossible to develop an overarching policy (Hulchanski, 2000). Houselessness helps define a broader view of the issues that are staging grounds for more transparent definitions including those who are inadequately housed. These are families or individuals that are without long-term legal tenure to ensure security; removed from required social and natural resources that affect health, safety and community; lack affordable housing – not only at the offset but over time – where less than 50% of their income is required for proper shelter; or bee made available a space which provides adequate privacy, sound living conditions and accessibility for those with special needs. A home should encompass not only the bare minimum standards of outlined by the United Nation Declaration of Human Rights (1948) but be resilient against social, environmental and economic shifts that – with globalization and an ever-changing environment – occur at a more frequent scale (Springer, 2000).
Annually, 22,000 make use of the 3,800 shelter beds available in Toronto, 68,000 remain in line for affordable housing, 150,000 pay more than 50% of their income towards rent (StatsCan, 2006) and 260,000 pay more than 30% – an amount that encompasses approximately 20% of all households (QuickFacts, 2011). The issue of homelessness under the auspices of houselessness attempts to capture a much greater group than the official count of 5,000 under the absolute definition (QuickFacts, 2011) and shows how close many are to being At Risk (Hulchanski, 2000). But even this number leaves out the number of hidden homeless – those who have lost their homes only to be taken in by friends or family, commonly referred to as “couch-surfers” – and should be considered too for inclusion in the At Risk category (Hwang, 2000). It is estimated that mitigating the needs of the homeless through programs and shelters on a interim basis costs taxpayers an estimated ten times that it would cost to house them properly in the long-term facilities (Blueprint, 2007) – not including the effects of stress that physical and mental health will have on our social and health infrastructure budgets (Hwang, 2000) – a amount that, if acted upon pre-emptively, can atone neo-conservative ideals of shrinking government expenditures if the initial capital outlay is made to mitigate the At Risk population.
Public policy is driven by clear and balance declaration and said definition may be based on bias – particularly when discussing an emotionally-charged issue such as homelessness (Cassavant, 1999). Major educational and economic players – including Finance Ministers, Bank Governors and Professors – have recently contributed their concern over continuing global economic turmoil (Whittington, 2011) a city becoming increasing divided by income disparity (Hulchanski, 2007) and activism reflecting the public disdain for inaction (Torobin, 2011). With continued policies that hinder our cities ability to solve the issue – such as the recent decision to sell TCHC units (Vincent, 2011) – we are shown the direct result of not having a clear, cohesive definition to provide concrete quantitative measures needed to define policy that can lead public discourse toward a viable, fiscally and socially responsible solution (Cassavant, 1999).
“No one chooses to be hungry, dirty, sleepless and afraid” (Hector, homeless youth, 1999). Discuss this statement critically with specific reference to the health, morbidity, social stigma and legal issues facing street youth.
Out of all the sub-groups in the homeless population, adolescents experience the most extreme of conditions – with increased health concerns and higher morbidity and morality rates than all other groups. It is also the group with the highest rate of increase (Report Card, 2003) and faces greater social and economical resistance while being exposed to more instances of physical and sexual assaults on the street, alcohol and drug abuse and disproportionate amount of conflicts with the law (CMHC, 2001). No one chooses this life to be “hungry, dirty, sleepless and afraid” (Hector, 1999) but often the opportunities they have to avoid or escape are limited and they have either fled worse conditions at home or have never known a home in the first place (Rokach, 2003).
Many homeless youth identify a problematic childhood as a driving force (Kidd, 2003) with physical, mental and sexual abuse being the catalyst to them leaving home (CHMC, 2001). Stability at home or within the child welfare system also plays a major factor where neglect, family continuity or domestic violence (Kidd, 2003) pushes adolescents to the street – while pull factors, such as a desire for independence, resistance to rules or authority and desire for experimentation also play a deciding factor (Miller, et al., 2004). Differing sexual orientation is disproportionately higher in street youth then their counterparts and has been on the rise in recent years – specifically from those who traveled from smaller communities – (McCreary, 2007) and can be attributed to lack of acceptance by family members or social problems at school (Higgitt, et al. 2003).
Half of street youth start to become involved between the ages of 11-14 years old (McCreary, 2007) with many having left school prior to completing a basic level of education due to alienation, poor achievement (Higgitt, et al. 2003) or have been expelled for reasons spawning from their troubled lives (McCreary, 2007). As a result, they have trouble obtaining employment or suffer from low wages which along with the lack of affordable housing have driven them to the street (CMHC, 2001). Welfare assistance programs in many provinces are not available to those between the ages of 16 and 19 where they are outside the catchments of child welfare policy and below the cut-off for social assistance (Kelly & Caputo, 2007) driving many to seek less mainstream employment and become relegated to more marginal sources of income such as panhandling, “squeegeeing”, selling drug and prostitution (Baron, 2001). This requires adolescents to form bonds with other disenfranchised youth – often described as their street family – and further perpetuates their reliance on street lifestyle (Higgitt, et al. 2003).
Youth are at higher risk of being exposed to violent crime (Kufeldt & Burrows, 1994) which makes them adverse to shelters leading to more time being spent on the street where a condition that Higgitt et al. describe as ‘street sickness’ occurs (2003). Poor hygiene, exposure to the elements and a substandard diet exacerbates existing conditions, specifically those who encounter a laissez-faire attitude to sexual encounters (Dachner & Tarasuk, 2002) – either by choice, lack of means or requested or forced in-trade (AHS, 2003). Drug abuse is common as a part of sexual encounters (McCreary, 2007) or to combat or subdue mental health issues (Kidd, 2003) which can lead to increased violence and injury (Kelly & Caputo, 2007). This high-risk lifestyle coupled with poor living conditions (Dachner & Tarasuk, 2002) and lack of funds for medication (Caputo, 1996) or ability to store or regulate those provided for free (Kelly & Caputo, 2007) leads to a higher morbidity rate than other homeless people for similar and preventable ailments.
Unchecked mental health (Kidd, 2003) driven by the malaise of poor health (Higgitt, et al, 2003) coupled with feelings of inadequacy, loneliness through ostracism and anxiety over the future (Rokach, 2003) can lead to a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse – compounding the problem – as well as increased violence and suicide rates among street youth. Increased violence not only leads to a higher rate for murder (Roy, et al., 2004) but more theft and drug arrests and convictions among adolescents on the street (McCreary, 2007). This causes a social backlash against street youth and forces governments to enforce laws that limit the remaining “legal” sources of income that are less prone to health or safety issues – such as panhandling or “squeegeeing” (Layton, 2008).
While it is the combination of physical and mental health issues that contribute to the lessened life expectancy of adolescents on the street, many of the factors that drive these conditions are often unavoidable and seen as a better alternative to that which they escaped. Without recourse to elevate from their current position and the “comfort” that is provided by the street community, many are stuck in a vicious cycle of depression and abuse that makes them easy prey for exploitation. Street youth are, by far, the most marginalised of the homeless population – but by no means is it a construct of choice. It is the negative and misinformed perception from society that has directed policy against this group that has limited the means for survival and caused many to live in conditions fraught with repetitive, life-threatening choices.
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