We can’t talk about societal change without talking about homelessness

Originally published 08/14/2020 by Calgary Herald

Patricia Jones, President & CEO, Calgary Homeless Foundation
Photo: AZIN GHAFFARI / Postmedia

Twenty-seven years ago, I began my career serving people as a social worker with Catholic Family Service. During that time, I developed a deep reverence for those experiencing vulnerability. From mental health programs, affordable counselling, and marriage preparation, to teaching life skills to teen parents and helping adult learners complete their GED – every day, we worked to build strong families in Calgary.

Yet, while I passionately believe that education, mental health and addiction support is key to moving individuals and families out of poverty, it was one of our signature partnerships that taught me that people cannot move on in their lives without a literal foundation – that is, a place to call home.

That program was the Louise Dean Centre, a wraparound service and school for pregnant and parenting teen mothers and fathers. We were proud of our graduates and worked hard to promote their healing and wellness, but the reality was that our participants and their children would leave our programs with no safe place to land.

Approximately twenty per cent of the students were homeless. They were completing their homework in the back of cars, taking their newborns to friends’ couches, and stuffing their diplomas into suitcases. Over half had been accepted into post-secondary school, but the thought of figuring out childcare, paying for school and groceries was understandably paralyzing. And, if they were connected to housing, often they did not have the skills to maintain it. How can someone build a strong family without a place to kiss their children goodnight? Sadly, this is the daily experience of many people in our city, with 100,000 households projected to be in need of housing in the next five years.

During the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also never been more evident that housing is our first and best line of defense when it comes to addressing crisis. People cannot self-isolate without a home. 

In response, Calgary Homeless Foundation coordinated the efforts of Calgary’s established and well-respected homeless-serving community – agencies, shelters and government partners – who came together to launch an isolation centre as a temporary emergency response to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within and outside the city’s homeless population. Since early April, over 305 medically at-risk individuals have been given the ability to self-isolate for two weeks and nearly 100 of them have been moved into permanent housing to date.

Despite these extraordinary efforts, on any given day, pandemic or not, there are approximately 2,911 Calgarians experiencing homelessness — which means there are 2,911 stories where systems have potentially failed. In addition, our shared challenge in Calgary continues to be an availability of appropriate housing for vulnerable populations.

It is because of these kinds of stories that I chose to step into the role of President and CEO of Calgary Homeless Foundation. I believe that any personal, familial, and societal transformation begins with – and requires – a place to call home.

Solving homelessness underpins every other development effort in our city. Societal change is not created by any one foundation, agency, individual, or government alone. For that reason, I look forward to working together to provide a continuum of housing options with the right supports so Calgarians have a foundation upon which healing and recovery can happen.

When we talk about caring for vulnerable families and individuals, our community health – or any of the social issues we’re facing in our city today – we will continue to fall short if we’re not also talking about how to create housing and homes for the people we’re caring for.