VIEWPOINT: Public perception on homeless population needs to shift

By Sidney Weiss

Drugs. Prostitution. Crime. A terminal “cancer” that is spreading fast.

Those are just a few of the words that Patrick O’Shaughnessy, a Byward Market business owner, plastered onto the main page of his recent online petition titled “Save the Market.”

The highly controversial petition called for the removal of three homeless shelters in the Market area due to the alleged impacts on the neighbourhood.

The discriminatory, stigmatizing rhetoric that O’Shaughnessy infused into his petition – which sparked a major public backlash that led to its removal – brings to light some deeply troubling attitudes related to the public’s perception of homeless people.

Yet for all of O’Shaughnessy gross generalizations and offensive comments, we should pay attention to one of his points.

Concentrating the city’s most vulnerable populations within the urban core is a regressive attempt at solving the problem, and the city isn’t taking enough responsibility to finding better ways to address this issue.

The shelter system in Ottawa has been operating for a long time and has its place in the social safety net.

But an activist group in Ottawa, Right to Housing, may have the tools for a better solution. The group focuses on shifting the dialogue from “no one wants a shelter in their backyard” to “everyone has the right to a home.”

This is the driving force behind the “Housing First” approach to end chronic homelessness, an initiative strongly endorsed by Right to Housing.

Housing First, simply put, takes the most vulnerable population of homeless people and places them directly in long-term homes, providing stable shelter and access to the social services they need. These housing units are either built for this purpose, or provided by landlords whose costs are then subsidized by federal and municipal governments.

The Housing First model has been implemented in several cities across Canada — Regina, Calgary, Guelph and Hamilton — and is proven to be one of the most efficient and effective approaches to ending homelessness.

We need to abolish the idea that someone needs to be “house-ready” before being placed into a permanent unit. Housing First needs to become the new norm if people are serious about solving these issues within their communities.

The CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness has said emergency shelters must serve as part of a city’s homeless system, but not as the backbone. Shelters are meant to support people in a short-term crisis, not as a long-term solution.

Nearly 60 per cent of shelter space across Canada is used for long-term stays.

Folks who are often struggling with a number of challenges — including trauma, racism and mental illness, on top of being homeless — shouldn’t be tossed around from shelter to shelter and be expected to land on their feet. This idea is counterproductive and unreasonable

The goal of the fight against homelessness is simple and universal: get people off the streets, into permanent homes and give them access to the services they need to get them back on track.

There is no definite solution to homelessness in Canada, but an initiative proven to be cost-effective and successful seems like a reasonable place to start.

This isn’t a call to completely cut funding to temporary forms of housing assistance. Emergency shelters serve an important role in Ottawa. But a heavy reliance on these systems continues to fail a majority of people.

Ottawa councillors are expected to meet on March 22 to come up with solutions to improve the city’s homelessness plan, which may involve directing more funding towards affordable housing.

It would be wise for the city’s civic leaders to funnel more of this money into Housing First initiatives.