"Homelessness is a national crisis but Vancouver is widely seen as the city with the worst problem because its street people, lining sidewalks and alleys of the Downtown Eastside and now spilling into the business core, are concentrated in a small area and highly visible," wrote Mark Hume in Dead end streets, the first instalment of a five part series on homelessness in Vancouver.
We were pleased to have Mr. Hume online earlier to take your questions on the homelessness crisis in Vancouver, how homelessness happens, its effect on a community, and what you can do to help. Your questions and his answers appear at the bottom of this page.
There are more than 1,200 homeless people in Vancouver, and more than 2,100 in the Greater Vancouver Area, including 22 children living with their families. Seeing people sleeping on the streets, even in bad weather, is an all too common sight. That's one of the reasons Frank McAllister, whose story kicked off this series, lost his life on the streets of Vancouver one year ago. It doesn't help that sources of assistance are limited. Last year, the Lookout Emergency Aid Society turned away people 5,000 times because its beds were full, reported Mr. Hume.
"How did it get this way? How did this beautiful, laid-back city, where the climate is softened by winds from the South Pacific, become a place of such despair for so many?" asked Mr. Hume in A very filthy room of one's own.
"The answer that emerges from interviews with poverty advocates, officials and front-line workers is disturbing. The homelessness crisis, which has become such a visual blight that it is hurting tourism and leading to convention cancellations, didn't befall the city like some kind of natural disaster. Instead, it was largely caused by government policy."
The number of homeless in Canada is not known, but estimates range from 150,000 to 250,000. Homelessness remains a largely undefined problem because no reliable method for counting people who live on the streets has been determined, explains Mr. Hume.
Mr. Hume is national correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. Born in Victoria, he has been a journalist for more than 30 years and has reported from Vancouver for the past 20 years. In researching the homelessness series, Mr. Hume made numerous trips to the Downtown Eastside to interview front-line social workers and people living on the street.
Rasha Mourtada, globeandmail.com: Welcome, Mark, and thank you for coming online to take questions from our readers today. We've got lots of questions for you today, so we'll get right to them.
Helene Robertson, Ottawa: First, I'd like to thank you for talking about this issue - too many people, content with their big homes, big trucks and big TVs are unwilling to look at the other side of the Canadian experience -- be it that of the homeless, the overqualified-underpaid immigrant, or the working poor. My question is this: I often pass homeless people in the streets of Ottawa (which is shameful, given the wealth of the city) and feel guilty for not being able to give them anything. I am a student, and without quarters to spare. I would like your thoughts, however, on whether we would be better off giving money to individual homeless people or to organizations which provide for them? Thank you.
Mark Hume: Thanks for your question, Helene. I've struggled with the same question myself. For years I've been told that handing out money to panhandlers only encourages them, and that there is adequate support out there for them already, which is paid for by tax payers. In researching this series, however, I learned that there isn't adequate support being provided by our government to the homeless. In Vancouver, shelters turn away people several thousand times a year. One recent survey of the homeless found 17 per cent had been turned away from shelters. And most of the homeless are not receiving welfare. So when they ask for spare change it is because they are dead broke. If I have spare change now I usually give it. I would not give it to someone who was aggressive. And if I was a student without money to spare I wouldn't feel guilty about it. You are doing a great thing by spending your time and money getting an education. And if you really want to help think about this: the most powerful tool you have for helping the homeless is your vote. So in the next federal, provincial or municipal election take a hard look at the candidates and vote for those that you think are sincere about tackling this problem.
Ryan Rankin, Canada: Hi Mr. Hume. In your opinion, specifically what can the average person do to help the homeless in their area?
Mark Hume: Hi Ryan. As I just said to Helene, I think the most constructive thing you can do is to vote for a candidate or a party that is seriously going to do something about this crisis. If enough people do that, the homelessness crisis could be resolved. If you want to take a more direct, hands on approach, you can always volunteer through a church or non-profit agency. You probably cannot imagine how valuable dependable, trustworthy volunteers are to most these organizations. And when I say volunteer at a church, I'm not suggesting you get religion. It's just a fact that churches right across the country are at the forefront when it comes to helping the poor.
R.M., Regina: How sadly ironic that as you run this series there is an article in The Globe and Mail about a homeless man in Calgary being fined for spitting in to a garbage can. A recent report on hospital care in Canada revealed again that approximately one-third of all beds are occupied by people with some form of mental illness. I am "guessing" that the figure for the state of the homeless would show an even higher degree of mental illness. To what extent do you believe homelessness is a health issue and how does one approach tackling such a difficult problem when people cannot afford or be required to accept treatment?
Mark Hume: I saw that news item about the homeless Calgary man being fined, and it made me shake my head in disbelief. Sometimes I wonder who is really crazy. The people living on the streets, or the politicians who think the way to deal with sick, homeless people is to give them tickets they have no hope of every paying.
On the matter of helping those who cannot afford or don't want help....first, nobody should be turned away because they can't afford it. And I don't think that happens in Canada. What does happen is that people get refused service because there aren't enough services to go around. And homeless people are difficult to help because they often don't keep appointments with medical doctors or psychiatrists. We can't force them to go, unless a psychiatrist is willing to certify that they are a danger to themselves or others. In Vancouver that is called "getting pinked" because of the colour of the slip the nurses fill out. Of course if a homeless person isn't being seen by nurses or doctors, nobody will know when they are certifiable. In my research I was told time after time that the most important thing to do is to provide adequate social housing, linked to supportive services. Make it as easy as possible for people to get help. Start by giving them a safe and secure place to live. And if they refuse treatment then? I don't really have an answer to that tough question. But I'm willing to bet that the vast majority would accept help, if it was made available to them.
Leigh Cooney, London: We saw what the media did for victims of hurricane Katrina. Why can't they get behind a cause that's local, that we see every day of our lives. Most people have absolutely no idea that this situation is a national emergency. The media knows what kind of effect they have on the public, so why aren't they taking responsibility? (Present company excluded...)
Mark Hume: Exactly my sentiments. As a society we have awesome power when we collectively want to respond to an emergency. This homelessness crisis seems to have just slowly crept up on us, however, and without any political leadership, we have just been adrift. Why hasn't the media been all over this story? I just don't know. An estimated 250,000 Canadians are so poor or sick or drug addled that they can't even put a roof over their head, and this isn't a big story? I just don't get that.
Owen Perry, Guelph: Hello Mark, I just want to thank you for taking the time to address the questions of Globe and Mail readers today. I believe that this is a very important issue that doesn't receive the media coverage it should in Canada today. As for my question, I'm interested to know what Harper's Conservative government is doing to combat this problem. Seeing people on the streets before they reach the age of 16 in a country of plenty is abhorrent, and it seems as though Harper hasn't done a thing since becoming Prime Minister to address the issue.
Mark Hume: I agree. The Conservatives haven't done much. The government no doubt would point to the anti-homelessness initiatives it funds across the country. But those programs were started under a previous administration and the Conservatives have, as yet, made no commitment to continue funding, which is set to expire early next year. I have been told that some new initiatives are coming. They'd better be, because if the federal government doesn't start moving on this crisis it's going to spiral down into a nightmare. The Conservatives of course can't take all the blame. This problem began to escalate in the early 90s and successive Liberal and Conservative governments failed to come to grips with it.
Phil King, Canada: Mark, I've always been of the opinion that one creates a compassionate society and thriving economy through ensuring equality of opportunity for every citizen. To me this means that we need a means of ensuring that everyone has food, clothes, a roof over their head and appropriate training/education. Even then, some people will never be in a position to take care of themselves, whether that's a result of mental or physical illness, or mere age and infirmity. Given this, would you support the contention that it is time to enact some kind of program, such as guaranteed income, to support the struggling individuals in our society? Is there any push at this stage for such a thing?
Mark Hume: I haven't heard anyone talking about guaranteed income for some years now, and while researching this series didn't hear the subject raised. I don't know that I would support the idea, if only because so many of the homeless people I met would just be incapable of handling it. I think it would be far better for society to provide subsidized, supportive housing.
Steven Ng, Vancouver: Thanks to you, Mark, and to your colleague Gary Mason for putting a face on the homeless and for giving this issue the high-profile that it deserves. The U.S. is so much more progressive than Canada in trying to eradicate homelessness, with all the major American cities developing 10-year plans. Why do you think that is the case and what are the chances of Ottawa reimplementing a national housing plan?
Mark Hume: It's kind of embarrassing that the U.S., even under a conservative president, is so far ahead of us in dealing with poverty issues. I can't explain why our federal government has been so myopic on this problem. Prime Minister Harper just doesn't seem to even know it exists. I guess it would be fair to say that we in the media haven't done a very good job of telling the story. If it was on the national news every night, perhaps cabinet would react.
As to your question on a national housing plan.....Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan told me this week that Ottawa will have a housing announcement in the near future. I don't see the Conservatives getting back into building social housing again but we could see some block funding transfers to the provinces to allow regional projects. However they do it, I hope it comes soon, and I hope they move a lot of money onto the housing file.
Beverly Stonehouse, Canada: I read your story about Frank. It is truly terrible and tragic! But, my gosh...the efforts on the part of "the system" to help him went above and beyond as far as I am concerned. Your article recounted repeatedly how things had been arranged for him and he never showed up. I understand that he probably wasn't in a state of mind to accept such gifts and kindness, but still. The need is so great and with resources so scarce, society must help those who are willing to help themselves. I know it is complex, there is certainly no easy solution and it is easy to pass judgment either on the system or the homeless, but if they don't take the help that is offered to them, what do you do? Force them? Well, that is a slippery slope in term of human rights, isn't it? I don't know. I don't have an answer. But I know that I care and I was very touched by your article, Mr. Hume, and I guess that is something.
Mark Hume: It's true that in many ways Francis McAllister was his own worst enemy. I would say the majority of homeless people I met while working on this series fell into the same category. But if someone is crippled by mental illness, drug addiction or other problems, society simply can't turn its back on them. That's not what you're suggesting, of course, but it's wrong to say that Francis had every opportunity to help himself. He was evicted from his apartment because he used crack. That put him in the street. He was sick and dying. Had there been a housing development that allowed him to use crack, he would likely have been safe and dry that night, and might have lived. Who knows, maybe he would have lived long enough to one day kick his habit. Maybe that's a sliver of hope to clutch at, but at least it's something.
The other thing to remember is that because Francis was homeless, the nurses who had medicine for him didn't know where to find him, and couldn't give him medicine. The outreach mental health team, which might have assessed him and ordered him into care, couldn't find him because he was homeless. So, to me, it all comes back to this. Had he had a home, he might have been saved. There will always be people, of course, who refuse all treatment. But in this case, I would argue the treatment wasn't available to him in a meaningful way.
Alex MacLean, Toronto: Mr. Hume, Thanks for your work highlighting this crisis. I have lived close to Seaton House (Canada's largest homeless shelter) for years. I find that this issue - and the term homelessness itself - is kicked around simplistically by many advocates, and used as a catch-all term for various street behaviours. I don't disregard their good intentions, but it seems to me you cannot really get at the root of this without tackling some of the social factors that underlie it. I've read accounts that possibly two-thirds of homeless people have alcohol and drug addictions or mental illnesses - and they also require proper shelter. We can build all the housing we want, it won't help those who can't function without also providing the services they need to maintain themselves. Can you comment on the different types of housing and service levels this might require, so that those persons might have options other than crowded, bed-bug ridden shelters?
Mark Hume: You've nailed the issue. Housing, unless it is linked to services, won't get us anywhere, because so many of the people living on the street have drug addiction and/or mental health issues. The phrase the experts are using is "supportive housing." Simply put, they are advocating providing social housing that is linked to mental health, drug addiction and other programs. The idea is not to warehouse all these poor people, in order to clean up our streets, but to get them in safe, secure housing, where they can stabilize their lives and plug in to programs that will help them with whatever problems they have.
In A home is where the hope is , I looked at some people who'd come in off the street to live in decent, subsidized housing. It had transformed their lives. One landlord tolerates tenants who use drugs in the privacy of their apartments, he allows tenants to turn tricks in the privacy of their apartments, and he allows people to park their shopping carts, full of salvaged garbage, in the common areas. Why does he put up with this kind of outrageous behaviour? Because he knows that if they get kicked out of his place they will live on the streets and be without hope. While if they stay, he hopes that slowly they will stabilize their lives, and start looking to step up to a better life. In the story he recounts some examples of that happening. It shows it can work.
Tine Cruickshank, Canada: In Victoria and Vancouver, a lot of people seem to think that the causes of homelessness on our streets have more to do with weather than policy, that homeless people from the East migrate here to enjoy the warmer climate. What are your thoughts on this?
Mark Hume: There is no hard data to support that conclusion. I always believed that was the case, because our weather is so mild, but the research hasn't been done yet to back that up. However, many people I talked to on the Downtown Eastside did say a lot of the homeless come from somewhere else. They see Vancouver's situation as a national problem because of that, and say it requires a national response. I'd agree.
Geriatric Personage, East Coast, Canada: Sorry to be blunt, but wouldn't it be better to forcibly remove homeless persons from the street and put them into a compulsory rehab program? I am not meaning to be simplistic and realize this needs in-depth discussion but the space available precludes this.
Mark Hume: People who are mentally ill can be institutionalized against their will if a psychiatrist examines them and concludes that they are dangerous to themselves or others. We cannot in this country, however, order people to take drug or alcohol treatment. The reason, I think, is obvious. If you go that route, it's not a big step to go from picking someone up and forcing them in a crack treatment house, to picking them up and forcing them into a program that forces them to stop smoking. And what about people who drink and drive? Not only do they threaten themselves, but they also endanger the lives of others. Should they be forced to go into treatment programs too? I have to admit, part of me wants to say yes to that question, but on reflection I have to argue that it's better to protect individual rights, and try to help people, rather than forcing them into treatment programs.
Rasha Mourtada, globeandmail.com: Thanks, Mark, for taking the time to come online today, and thanks to our readers for participating. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions. Any last thoughts, Mark, you'd like to leave us with?
Mark Hume: Just a quick thanks to all those who took the time to pose these thought-provoking questions. I learned a lot doing the series, and came to a few conclusions. I wouldn't pretend to have all the answers. I did become convinced, however, that providing housing should be the first step. In Canada, we shouldn't be leaving the poor, the mentally ill and the drug addicted to sleep and die on our streets.