"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?