The last accepted prejudice: the homeless in Canada and the unforgivable stigmatization of our most vulnerable citizens

They must have made poor choices in their lives and that’s why they’re in the situation they’re in now… Don’t give any of your money to a homeless person, they’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol… People on welfare have it so good… I wish I could take advantage of the system like they do… Must be nice to sit around all day doing nothing and get paid by the government to do it…”

Sound familiar? I could go on.

Transparent-Homeless-Man--THREEWhether we’ve heard someone say them, saw them on social media or unknowingly said these things ourselves, these are common misconceptions concerning people living in poverty or without safe and secure shelter. They’re examples of “poor-bashing” that have lasting and harmful implications.

Jean Swanson is a Canadian activist who has worked endlessly on addressing issues related to poverty and homelessness. She is a coordinator of the organization Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) out of Vancouver, which is dedicated to the welfare of one of the poorest communities in Vancouver. She has worked with a number of different organizations and has written many books and essays on the importance of addressing Canada’s economy in terms of how it affects people’s income and moreover how it causes poverty and issues surrounding poverty. In 2001, she wrote a piece called Poor-Bashing; The Politics of Exclusion which discusses the causes of poverty at length as well as the relationship between the poor and the rich.

She defines poor-bashing as “when people who are poor are humiliated, stereotyped, discriminated against, threatened, shunned, despised, pitied, patronized, ignored, blamed, and falsely accused of being lazy, drunk, stupid, uneducated, having large families and not looking for work.”

Due in some measure to the availability of social media and its well-known excesses, it’s much easier for someone today to just sprout off a rude and uninformed opinion without having to defend what they said or face the consequences. I’ve seen poor-bashing happen on numerous occasions on Facebook and other social networks and while everyone is entitled to their opinion and it’s a great thing that we have tools that allow us to express it, these biased statements are unfair to the person on the receiving end of such vindictive sentiments.

Poor-bashing is similar to racism and sexism, or any other type of degrading “ism”. It generalizes an entire group of people for circumstances largely beyond their control. Poor-bashing is unproductive, doesn’t help anyone and doesn’t lead to any conclusions about fixing poverty and homelessness.

I want you to close your eyes and think about the word “homelessness”. What does that look like? What does it mean to you? Who do you see?

It’s a conversation that’s rarely had and it’s often a subject of discomfort and confusion. We hardly ever think about the single woman with three children who lost her job when we hear homelessness. We probably don’t think about the 30-year-old with two degrees and too much debt to pay when we think of homelessness, or that it could be you someday. It’s difficult to understand what it’s like unless you’ve experienced extreme poverty or have actually been homeless. Initiatives such as 5 Days for the Homeless, which Brock University participates in annually, attempt to break the barrier between ignorance and experience when it comes to homelessness so that people can briefly understand what it’s like to have to live outside while receiving donations. It’s a great project with a lot of success and is definitely something that everyone should try to experience, but the people participating get to return home afterwards whereas millions of Canadians will experience true homelessness, not knowing when they will have the chance to sleep in a warm bed again.

Unfortunately, these are realities which are often ignored when it comes to extreme poverty and homelessness in Canada. There’s a negative stigma attached to homelessness where the homeless person must be at fault for their own situation, and therefore it can be difficult to address the problem when people aren’t educated on its realities. It isn’t until we educate ourselves and take the steps to inform citizens and form initiatives that address homelessness and its causes that the problem can be dealt with properly.

Last year a report was released called The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013, written by Stephen Gaetz, Jesse Donaldson, Tim Richter and Tanya Gulliver. The report is the first Canadian report card to focus extensively on homelessness in Canada. It examines homelessness from a variety of perspectives and discusses the historical, social and economic context in which homelessness is often described. The purpose of the report was to “assess the breadth of the problem and to develop a methodology for national measurement”.

The information in the report was put together by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network (Homeless Hub) and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. The summary of the report indicates that hard statistics on homelessness in Canada are difficult to come by and that the numbers provided are estimated based off of the information available to them. That’s the frightening part: the numbers could be far worse than the report is even able to state.

The report indicates that although homelessness in Canada (for the majority of Canadians) is short term and only happens once, as many as 1.3 million Canadians have experienced homelessness or extremely insecure housing at some point in only the last five years. As many as 30,000 people are homeless on any given night with more than 2,880 without shelter and 14,400 staying in emergency overnight shelters.

Perhaps more worrying, the report says that 50,000 Canadians may be “hidden homeless”. While there are more visible signs of homelessness, such as the people you might see on the street or the people who use homeless shelters, the number of people who are homeless where it’s not so visible are referred to as the “hidden homeless”. This includes people who seek refuge in the basements of abandoned or vacant buildings and squatters who break into people’s garages. It also includes anyone who stays in hotels or motels for short periods of time to avoid being on the streets.

A large portion of these 50,000 “hidden homeless” people are women who seek shelter with men even though they are often put in dangerous situations. What these instances of “hidden homelessness” illustrates is that homelessness is not always obvious and that notions of homelessness need to be revaluated because what we say we “know” is not always accurate to what is actually happening on the streets.

Also troubling is ‘who’ the homeless are in Canada. The report indicated that 47.5 per cent of homeless residents in Canada are single adult males. Children make up 20 per cent of the homeless population, the second largest group. Additionally, First Nations, Metis and Inuit Peoples are overrepresented in being homeless and at risk of living in extreme poverty. Furthermore, violence and poverty are the main causes of homelessness for women and young families.

This extensive and detailed report reveals how homelessness happens to “regular” people all the time, and as such we need to be careful how we talk about it. Homelessness isn’t something that can be discussed lightly or without clear critical thinking. These numbers indicate it can happen to anyone, even highly educated people, who end up on the streets short or long term due to unforeseen circumstances. Most of Canada’s homeless aren’t a result of a drinking problem or laziness; it’s due to financial hardships which are often unavoidable. People don’t choose to be homeless, and that’s why poor-bashing needs to be looked at like any other form of discrimination.

Financial hardships or precarious employment may predominate as leading causes but beneath the radar are often overlooked circumstances – mental illness for example, or family breakdown also are major factors that need to inform the discussion if the public and government social policy can hope to remedy this problem.

As mentioned before, the stigma surrounding homelessness in Canada is that the people who have found themselves in these situations, more often than not, could have avoided it. This is not true. Again, this is an uneducated lens of looking at homelessness and does not address the problem. Stigmas make it easier for the rest of society to turn a blind eye. What we don’t realize though is that homelessness in Canada is actually costing its taxpayers both socially and financially. The cost of running emergency shelters, social services, health care and corrections for people who are homeless or who have experienced homelessness costs the Canadian economy approximately $7 billion every year. I doubt anyone would suggest that funding should be taken away from Canada’s homeless, but if the country thinks about ways of addressing and creating solutions for the problem, it would cost the country far less.

According to the report there are several provincial governments that are working towards creating strategies and responses to homelessness. The end of the report provides an array of solutions which would help to address and solve the dilemma such as prioritizing the needs of the chronic or episodic homeless as well as streamlining data collection and government statistics so that there is more access to better tools and information. The biggest recommendations being made for putting an end to homelessness come down to community levels. The first is that communities should develop and implement clear plans to end homelessness which should be supported by all levels of government. Looking more specifically at the Niagara Region, the region has taken steps to implement an action plan that will hopefully rid the region of its homelessness.

The region has developed a 10-year housing and homelessness action plan in consultation with residents, service providers and stakeholders in the region. The goal is to make sure that everyone in the Niagara Region has an affordable place to inhabit which is both suitable and adequate to live in. The plan examines the current and future housing needs of Niagara residents, sets out objectives and goals relating to housing needs, proposes actions to meet the goals and establishes a process to make sure the goals are met within the ten years. Additionally, the plan serves as an important tool in preparing for funding and partnerships with government organizations.

We are fortunate in this area to have the YWCA actively participating in informing citizens of the realities of homelessness and how it affects the Niagara Region. Last year Brock University hosted the Cardboard House, which is an interactive display provided by the YWCA. As visitors walk through the house, they are able to read statistics regarding homelessness in the Niagara Region and about who is primarily affected. Projects like this help to eliminate the stigmas around homelessness so hopefully people will have a better understanding.

It is important to remember that stereotypes are harmful to people, and when we’re talking about homelessness, it is equally important to recognize why these stereotypes are being made. Many of these negative views are the reason that homelessness is not addressed properly. Housing plans such as the one that is in effect in the Niagara Region are proof that homelessness is a prevalent problem and not because people are at fault for their own homelessness. We need to be for each other instead of against each other. Life is not always as stable as we may like to think, and we must remember that anyone could end up in a position of homelessness.

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One thought on “The last accepted prejudice: the homeless in Canada and the unforgivable stigmatization of our most vulnerable citizens

  1. I’m curious to see how closely the plans for the old hospital site in downtown St. Catharines align with the many good intentions in the Regional Policy Plan and specifically the HHAP. At least the document makes for insightful reading–and may actually stimulate new housing approaches. Your article and the report are a good overview of homelessness in our area. Thanks to my kind landlady, I’m not homeless or without walls to hang my various degrees and certificates, as I continue to seek out sustainable local employment.

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