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Homelessness

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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.

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