Last night I took the night off from being homeless to have dinner with friends who live in the town I am visiting. Our conversation led me to a startling revelation. My journey is not simply about the 140,000 people living homeless in Canada but it is also about the 20,650,000 Canadians living 3 months away from being homeless. According to a Global Television report 59% of us live paycheck to paycheck.... if our income stopped for some reason we would be out of our home in 3 months. The single greatest cause of poverty in North America is the lack of affordable housing (housing that costs no more then 35% of one's income).
The lack of affordable housing negatively impacts our economy, by drains on poverty support systems, such as food banks, health clinics, emergency shelters, as well as income supports. But imagine what would happen to the economy if suddenly almost 21,000,000 people had disposable income to pour back into the economy, through personal spending. Not to mention the savings by reducing the numbers of people on income support by more than 50%. Short sightedness on the part of governments, corporations, and western culture in general... has us saving pennies by burning dollars. As a taxpayer I find this outragous.
The solution is not that complicated. Every level of government should get as much land as possible into the hands of Habitat for Humanity. This affordable home ownership will reduce congestion in rental units. I'll address some of the concerns I have heard regarding this proposal in another essay. Here, I want to talk about the MONEY SENSE involved, since money seems to be the only vocabulary governments understand.
For the sake of easy math, I am going to say give Habitat for Humanity 5 acres of land (I'll assign it a value of $5,000,000) on this land they build 200 condos/townhouses each has an estimated property value of $200,000. Even at a very modest mill rate property taxes per unit $500 per year x 200 = $100,000 per year in 50 years the price of the property has been recouped. Of course, I do know a little something about double entry book keeping and our city may prefer to lease the 5 acres of land for $1 per year on a 100 year lease, thereby keeping the asset on their books. I believe they would still be collecting property tax as a sort of condo fee for providing city services but I admit I am not sure about how that would work.
Let us assume that the average family in this Habitat for Humanity complex has an income of $1500 net per month... Their mortgage has been reduced from 2/3 to 1/3 of that income, so every one of these 200 families has an additional $500 (totalling $100,000) per month to spend in local businesses. On a national level we can divide the 21 million low income people by 3; giving us 7 million families assuming half of these people are just bad money managers that still leaves 3..5 million low income families. Providing affordable housing for these folks would result in a staggering $1,750,000,000 (1.75 Billion Dollars) per month of disposable income going back into the Canadian economy... NOW THAT'S AN ECONOMIC STIMULUS PLAN...
I am not going to suggest reducing resources allocated to shelters and services for the homeless, because these services would experience a natural realignment with a reduction of 50% (poor & working poor who live homeless) of our current client population. Currently shelters are less about actually helping individuals and more about wrangling large numbers of people and what we refer to in the industry as harm reduction. The shelter system was designed for a very specific purpose and affordable housing would allow us to get back to doing our jobs properly.
Centre 4-5-4 September 25, 2010
A couple of months ago I came across an article online about an Ottawa woman who works with the homeless. Reading the article I was stuck by the thought, “That is my kind of social worker” when I get to Ottawa I must look her up. Two days ago I had the great good fortune to meet Mary Martha Hale… she shares my commitment to the homeless and practices what I call free-style social work. Basically free-style social work means treating everyone with kindness and respect and being present for the clients with whatever is needed in any given moment. This has been my personal philosophy and is shared by many of the people I have worked with over the years. Today I don’t wish to talk about “our Mary Martha” as she is affectionately referred to by her staff and clients. Today I want to talk about the result of putting that philosophy into action.
When I first arrived in Ottawa I went to Centre 454 and have visited often over this past month. Forged partly by design and partly by default… this place is what every drop-in should be… it is in a word flawless. OK… one flaw, on movie day, game playing should be moved into the meeting room.
Every staff member from administrator to volunteers spends much of their time interacting with the participants (Mary Martha’s word for clients). They will be chatting over coffee, playing cards or board games, having a smoke or just hanging out. This is how trust is built. Truly effective counseling must be done in an atmosphere of trust. Because these trust relationships lead to situations where a client may require private time with a staff person, the Centre’s small bank of offices is accessible for use by all staff, full or part-time. Community volunteers man the desk and do other task within their personal comfort level. Clients are hired for short stints to manage the laundry room or kitchen… this provides them with a little extra cash and a small taste of job responsibility.
Administration hires like minded individuals and compensates them appropriately… too often those working in human services are paid little more than minimum wage. I imagine getting a full time position at Centre 454 would be like becoming a tenured professor at some prestigious university. Much coveted and seldom vacated. Other then the core staff, there are a number of part-time staff, who after a few months will leave for full-time positions elsewhere. Normally, I would feel this is a bad practice, but in this case I see these positions as internships; a chance for young people to learn what social work is meant to be.
Because of the centre’s small size they have a schedule of services which are being provided by representative from other agencies. One day per week the housing help centre sends Allison, Wabano Native Health Centre sends Steve; there are also visits from public health and education and employment services. Most drop-ins try to provide these services in house. The advantage to the client of what Centre 454 is doing, is that it introduces the client to agencies outside their comfort zone. Once one gets to know a representative from meeting them at 454, going down to the agency itself for assistance becomes less intimidating. Instead of having one resource… Mary Martha’s participants are being given a whole community of resources.
Angels of the Road has taken me to probably 100 facilities in over half of Canada, and Centre 454 is light-years above and beyond anything else I have seen. Every agency within the shelter industry is well intended but sadly too often we are doing as much harm as good, for our clients. Providing the homeless and street population with warm beds and nourishing food is important. But if we are truly going to move people forward in their lives, we must warm the soul and nourish the psyche and no one I have found thus far, is doing this better then Centre 454.
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It is truly wonderful to see that people are still interested in the Angels of the Road... journey into homelessness. Maybe the research paper will influence the way the shelter industry develops.
About this new blog page ... here I will post new commentary around social justice issues as well as copies of my favourite blogs from the blogspot. If you want to follow my surreal journey in its entirety Angels of the Road Blogspot.