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Homelessness

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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.

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