Six years ago, when Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness was launched in January 2008, I sat in a room with a few hundred other Calgarians and listened to the details and wondered, “Who are they kidding?” They’ll never end it. Not unless, of course, they end addictions and family violence and divorce and loss and child abuse and a whole host of ills that plague our society and contribute to homelessness in the first place.
At one point during the event, the man beside me, who worked in the addictions sector, leaned over and told me I’d better watch out. “You work in the homeless sector. In a few years you’ll be out of a job”, he said. I laughed and replied that I’d be okay with that. Because if we end homelessness it means we’ll have ended all those other things that made it possible – like addictions. “Then we’ll both be out of job,” I told him and added with a wink, “but that’s not going to happen, so let’s keep doing what we’re doing.”
I was smug, arrogant and wrong.
We can and we must end homelessness. I’m not talking about homelessness for those who need temporary shelter or assistance to overcome life’s transitory distresses, or those who come to Calgary because of the jobs and find they can’t afford the cost of living. Calgary has an amazing network of emergency shelters and homeless and poverty-serving agencies that provide for the basic needs of individuals and families in crisis. Data shows that the majority of these individuals leave the homeless system with minimal support from the social services network.
But for the chronically homeless, for those who have endured years, if not decades, sleeping on a mat or holed up in a makeshift shelter in the forest, we must do whatever it takes to bring them home. In their lives, homelessness has drained their resilience and capacity to make change happen. And in their homelessness, our social systems and public services are strained to keep up to the challenges they face every day. Providing these people with housing and support gives them hope that change is possible.
At Christmas, while volunteering to serve dinner at one of the buildings owned by the Calgary Homeless Foundation that provides housing and supports to formerly homeless individuals, I chatted with a man who had spent almost 15 years living in parks and back alleys in our city. “I figured I’d eventually die in the cold.”
His eyes misted up as he recounted his past way of living. “That’s where they found me,” he said. “Sleeping in some bushes.” It’s been eight months since he’s been housed. He’s grateful to be alive to tell the story because he’s not going back.
“Homelessness robbed me of a decade of my life,” another tenant remarked. “I can’t get those years, nor the things I lost, back.”
But he can get back the thing that was lacking the most while he wandered the streets. “I’ve got hope now,” he said. “And with hope, it’s possible to get back dignity, self-esteem.” And possibly even a relationship with his kids.
Hope is one of the first things to go when homelessness hits, he told me. And it’s one of the first to return when it ends.
Six years ago, when I sat in a room and listened to our community’s 10 Year Plan, I didn’t believe it had a hope in hell of succeeding.
Time has taught me well the meaning of humility. Over 5,000 people have been housed since the launch of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan, and the majority of those people are still living at home. They’re doing things differently, and so are we. It’s working. We’re taking Calgary’s innovative, pioneer spirit and applying it to something we thought would never change. Like the builders and agencies involved in RESOLVE, a fundraising campaign to support the 10 Year Plan’s goal of creating more affordable housing options in Calgary, we are working together. We are not settling for status quo.
We can’t settle for doing what we’ve always done. Homelessness is hell and when you’re experiencing it, the longer it endures, the harder it is to believe there’s hope for anything different.
Ending homelessness isn’t about solving all the problems in someone’s life. It’s about building a network of supports and resources that provide the stability for each person to be able to thrive in community. It’s about being able to identify barriers and remove them so people have access to safe, affordable housing along with the vital supports to help them stay there.
To end homelessness, we must provide the most difficult to house and those who are the greatest burden on the system, the opportunity to plug into the resources they need to make changes in their lives. To do that, we must ensure that those who have walked so far from home and have lost all hope, have a chance to find it again. Because, in ending homelessness, lives are saved, dignity is restored and hope for a better future is possible.