What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? – Part 3

Homelessness – The Root Causes – Part III

In Part I & Part II,  I have been asking the question – “What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?”  (Join the movement – tweet your answers on Twitter with the tag #whyhomeless).  I pointed out that –

The right to housing is a basic human right defined by the United Nations, ratified and signed by Canada and most other Western nations. And yet,  it is the lack of affordable housing which most suspect to be the leading contributor to homelessness in every town and city in North America where it exists.

Photo - Board of Regents - Dan Bergeron / fauxreel - in Torontoist

Photo - Fatima - Dan Bergeron / fauxreel - in Torontoist

To determine the root cause of homelessness it’s important to investigate the genesis of the single cause most often targetted – the lack of affordable housing – in view of the United Nations covenant. The international agreement is:

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

It includes such basic human rights as – the right to Self-determination, equal rights for men and women,  the right to work,  the right to just and favorable conditions of work,  the right to form and join trade unions,  the right to social security and social insurance,  rights to protection and assistance for the family, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to education, the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications…

And –

Article 11 – The right to an adequate standard of living

Which clearly states:
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing- and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international cooperation based on free consent.

This right to “adequate housing” is so crucial, that it is the only factor to be extensively defined and in a General Comment to the Covenant, General Comment No. 4 – which  reveals the extensive nature of the protection included under article 11 and elaborates legal interpretations of the right to adequate housing which go far beyond restricted visions of this right as simply a right to shelter. In it, the Committee, which has given more attention to the right to housing than to any other right under the Covenant, states (in part):

“The right to housing, should not be interpreted in a narrower restrictive sense which equates it with, for example, the shelter provided by merely having a roof over one’s head . . . Rather it should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity”.  The Committee has defined the term “adequate housing” to comprise –

  • security of tenure
  • availability of services
  • affordability
  • habitability
  • accessibility
  • location
  • and cultural adequacy

Affordability is defined such that personal or household financial costs associated with housing should be at such a level that the attainment and satisfaction of other basic needs are not threatened or compromised;  Location so that adequate housing must be in a location which allows access to employment options, health-care services, schools, child-care centres and other social facilities; and cultural adequacy means that the way housing is constructed, the building materials used and the policies supporting these must appropriately enable the expression of cultural identity and diversity of housing.

The states and nations party to this covenant (including Canada) regognize the interdependance of basic rights – ” the full enjoyment of other rights – such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of association (such as for tenants and other community-based groups), the right to freedom of residence and the right to participate in public decision-making – is indispensable if the right to adequate housing is to be realized and maintained by all groups in society” .  Further, rights such as the right to adequate housing in turn are integral to a persons ability to enjoy other basic human rights.

It is important to discuss this in our investigation of the root causes of homelessness – especially in the light of our own government policies – policies, laws and regulations at the municipal, provincial and federal levels can not be in contravention of this covenant. We must hold policy makers and politicians accountable to the rule of law in how our social safety net is put into practice and demand that barriers to the enjoyment of basic human rights are removed. We must be vigilant to ensure that nobody is subjected to discrimination which affects their right to adequate housing.

For example – if we look at the conditions on First Nations reserves and the housing solutions provided there, can we say that our First nations people have access to housing which is affordable and meets the internationally agreed upon standards for location and cultural adequacy?

In the next part I’ll review how the United Nations has helped develop a broad definition of homelessness. Many people do not take the time to define “homelessness” in their policies and programs. If we are to determine root causes then we must use a common definition.

Your comments are needed – share this with as people as possible, on Facebook, Digg, Reddit. If you’re on Twitter, tweet this link and your comments with the new Twitter hashtag #whyhomeless.  Reply to me @canayjun Get the word out.

BE the change!

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What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part 2

Read – What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part I

Homelessness – The Root Causes – Part II

See it - by canayjun / Mrpicassohead

See it - by canayjun / MrPicassohead

In Part I of the series, I shared the results of informal surveys of volunteers over the last few years of what people think is the root cause of homelessness. It’s important to address this issue. Much has already been written and studied on how to help the homeless, but I strongly believe we have still missed the mark. To define this is critical in alleviating homelessness. (We still need your input and comments here too)

…if we are not targeting the root cause of the problem, then homelessness will only worsen. It’s like finding a cure for a disease. Homelessness is a plague on our society.  Instead of just treating symptoms we need to find a cure for those who are already homeless and we need to protect the entire population from the risk of being exposed to homelessness.

I’ve already listed what most people think are the causes –

Alcohol and drug abuse, addictions
Loss of a job, the economy, bankruptcy
Family problems and break-ups
Lack of education – not being qualified for well paying job
Poor judgment, making bad choices and laziness
Choice – some people just choose to be homeless
————-
Mental illness
Physical disability
Abuse in the home
– youth runaways
Violence against women

– and that most people would target addictions and family dysfunctions when asked to choose the top reasons. My colleague Steve, a member of the Sanctuary community in Toronto and outreach worker with the Center for Student Missions, himself formerly homeless, targets job loss as the number one reason. He predicts a large upswing in the numbers of homeless in a few months due to the current recession when EI and layoff / severance benefits run out.  Some comments, here and on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter,  have had good suggestions to give other factors more priority, such as

Mental health issues
Veterans suffering PTSD
Gender inequality
Bias regarding sexual orientation
Low Minimum wages

As I explain to our volunteers after a night out serving the homeless on the streets where they live – all of these answers fall short of the mark. None of these factors, in themselves, cause homelessness. None of them identify the root cause of homelessness.  I am not denying that all of the homeless people I know have faced many of these challenges in their lives.  I’m merely pointing out that these factors are just symptoms of our human condition in the society we have created.  Many of them terrible, painful and de-humanizing, but just characteristics of modern life nonetheless. Most homeless programs address some combination of these issues.  Most core funding to solve homelessness is centered around a model of personal healing for individuals who are victims of those listed issues.

I’m going to use two examples to illustrate my point:

  • Alcoholism and victims of abuse.

Most people see the huge prevalence of alcohol abuse on the streets by homeless people as an indication that it is the addiction of that person that is the main contributor to their homelessness. However,  not every alcoholic is homeless or becomes homeless in the course of their struggles with the addiction. Another of society’s plagues, the percentage of adult North Americans who are alcoholics is difficult to determine – different studies range from 5% to 30%.  Much alcoholism goes undiagnosed and there is an overlap between habits of people who abuse alcohol and those who are dependant on alcohol (addicted).  It’s estimated less than 25% of people seek treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction. But if we used the figure of 5% as people who are dependant on alcohol and applied that to the adult population of Toronto [1,879,000 adults aged 25 to 64, census 2006], we would arrive at a number of almost 94,000 people suffering from alcohol addiction in the GTA.   Even if we assume that about 25%  of those people were actively seeking treatment, the remaining 75,000  people are not all homeless (although many may be at risk of becoming homeless due to secondary factors such as job loss, family dysfunction and secondary medical disabilities).

The total number of homeless in Toronto has been estimated to be between 40-50,000 (including the under-housed) and the majority of those people are not alcohol abusers or addicts. The street population – that is those who are absolutely without shelter and/or living in overnight emergency shelters has been pegged at approximately 5,000 while those living outside roughly number only from 500 to 1,000.  Again, not all of those people are alcoholics.  In my experience from one third to half of the homeless I serve on the street have an alcohol abuse problem and it often dates to the period after they became homeless.  At best, based on a total local number of 94,000 alcoholics, that means less than three percent of the street homeless are there as a result of alcoholism.  So you can see that alcoholism is not a root cause, merely a significant contributing factor. [ I realize there are challenges in treating statistics in this manner, as not all of the homeless in Toronto originate from Toronto, still I believe the disparity is significant]

My next example is of victims of abuse specifically youth:

It is said that nearly one in five young people – 19 and under – will be victims of physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse in their lifetimes – a terrible statistic (some reports are much higher). In the Toronto census area there are 679,960 youth from the ages of 10 to 19 years of age. Using that one in five ratio means that there is a potential toll of abuse being faced by about 135,000 youth in the Toronto GTA.  The CBC’s Fifth Estate has reported (2004) that on any given night there are between 1,500 to 2,000 homeless youth in Toronto.  I know from experience that many of those street homeless youth are victims of abuse. You don’t want to hear what I have heard from them, or see the brokenness that I have witnessed in their young lives. The total numbers however reflect that only a minority percentage become homeless.  Once again abuse is probably not the root cause of homelessness.

A similar statistical review of the other identified issues such as mental health challenges, family break-ups, job loss, economic downturn would show the same results. All of those issues are faced by the the entire population at some point. Everyone in our society encounters serious crisis situations in their lives and yet it is a relatively small percentage of the population who actually experience homelessness. Even if there are, as some estimates claim,  fifty thousand homeless in the GTA, that only represents about 1% of our total population (Toronto Census Metropolitan Area 5,113,149 – 2006 StatsCan).

So what is the root cause of homelessness?

I have to say that I am not sure anymore as a result of starting this whole process. I know what I say to our volunteers. I know what other experts and poverty relief organizations are trying to get the public to hear. I know what at least one person who commented on the last post already suspects (thanks Jayne from Interfaith Sanctuary Housing Services).

The root cause of homelessness is said to be-

the lack of affordable housing.

The gentrification of Moss Park - Homelessness - photo by A Coats

I tell all my Project417 volunteer groups that the root cause is the lack of accessible, safe and affordable housing. Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and homelessness advocate for over twenty years is a recipient of the Atkinson Economic Justice Award.  She says in her most recent newsletter

… despite my efforts and the efforts of a great many others, homelessness in Canada remains a very real disaster and as this recession unfolds, the disaster is only going to grow with no real end in sight. As I have said many times before, Canada desperately needs a National Housing Program and we need it now!

The Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida lists affordable housing and loss of a job as the primary causes of homelessness. The National [U.S.] Alliance to End Homelessness list affordable housing and permanent supportive housing as a key step in their plan to eliminate homelessness. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee targets affordable housing funding with their Housing Not War and 1% Solution campaign.  The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty demands “decent, affordable, accessible housing for all”.

The right to housing is a basic human right defined by the United Nations, ratified and signed by Canada and most other Western nations. And yet,  it is the lack of affordable housing which most suspect to be the leading contributor to homelessness in every town and city in North America where it exists.  Until recently I believed the same but I feel we have not yet identified the root cause of homelessness.

I need your comments. Post them here.  Share this on Facebook, Digg, Reddit and Twitter with the twitter hashtag #whyhomeless and twitter reply to @canayjun so I can see the tweets. Re-post this blog on your own website and link back here. The permalink is –

https://missionlog.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/what-do-you-think-is-the-root-cause-of-homelessness-part-2

I will explore this further in the next post because I suspect now that even the issue of affordable housing does not sufficiently capture the underlying “root” cause of homelessness. I feel the solution is within our grasp. Join the discussion… social networking and the internet offer us the ability to establish a wide ranging and influential grassroots movement to change the way we view and treat homelessness. BE the change…

Thank-you

<><

Andy Coats

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What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?

Homelessness – The Root Causes – Part I

fauxreel / the unaddressed

fauxreel / the unaddressed

Several nights a week I travel the the downtown streets of Toronto with groups of volunteers delivering bag lunch meals to the homeless. We call it a Sandwich Run – each bag lunch contains a sandwich, an apple, a snack like a granola bar or rice crispy square and a juice box – but it’s not about the sandwiches. It’s about being out on the street with our homeless friends seeing if they are OK – do they need anything? are they in distress? do they need someone friendly to talk to? We host more than two thousand volunteers a year, rain or shine, ice or snow.  If we could get more volunteers we’d go out every night. You can read more about the Project417 Sandwich Runs here.

I’ve been doing this full-time for six years now and it was ten years ago that I first began volunteering out on the streets with the homeless. This post is not about me or the sandwich runs.  It is about homelessness. What is the root cause? How do we put an end to it? How do we solve the problem of homelessness? We need to be asking these questions and seeking solutions because homelessness is a problem right across Canada, the United States and the world. It takes on different characteristics in different cities and cultures, but it is a disaster in the midst of our prosperity. It affects the overall health of our communities and neighborhoods no matter where we live.

The cost of alleviating homelessness takes a huge toll on our economies. In Toronto and across Canada, hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars are being spent on homeless initiatives by cities, municipalities, non-profits, charities, provincial governments and federal departments. That being the case, you would assume that the root cause of homelessness has already been determined and programs address this cause in an aggressive manner – that the enormous amount of funding is directed at solving the major issues that cause people to become (and remain) homeless. That assumption would be wrong. Many organizations and groups are calling for increased funding to address homelessness for the simple reason that the homeless continue to be in our midst with no end in sight. More money is not necessarily the answer, because if the right questions have not been asked, if the core issues are not being addressed, if we are not targeting the root cause of the problem, then homelessness will only worsen. It’s like finding a cure for a disease. Homelessness is a plague on our society.  Instead of just treating symptoms we need to find a cure for those who are already homeless and we need to protect the entire population from the risk of being exposed to homelessness.

At the end of every evening
after a sandwich run we hold a debrief session with the volunteers. They have just witnessed a disaster scene and for their own mental well being we need to share common experiences, put those experiences in perspective, examine questions that arise and learn from each other. I ask them to share the conversations and encounters they have had with our homeless friends. I ask them what did they expect to see and compare it to what they saw. I challenge the stereotypical perception of the homeless street person:  disturbed, agressive, reclusive, drunk, dangerous, drugged out, sick, tired, dirty, lazy. From a media standpoint it is as if there is open season on discriminating against the homeless because they can no longer overtly discriminate on the basis of race, color, origins or beliefs, but anyone can put down what they call a bum or hobo.   I ask every group, “What do you think is the root cause of homelessness?

Over the years, we have asked this question of well over twenty thousand volunteers. They are adults and youth, professionals and family groups, business people and church groups, students and teachers – even front line workers and management involved in poverty programs and servicing the homeless. The volunteers are a cross section of North American society. Although we are a Christian charity, our volunteers originate from many faith persuasions.  About one third of our volunteers are from the United States, perhaps one quarter from regions of Ontario other than the GTA and the majority from the suburban ring surounding Toronto.  The only thing they really have in common is that they wanted to do something about homelessness and took the step of volunteering. The answers have not really changed over the time we have been posing the question. Perceptions remain the same. This is not statistically accurate, I don’t record these answers and these results are anecdotal at best – but they represent how a cross section of our society feels.

Here are the top causes of homelessness that we most often hear in order of popularity –

Alcohol and drug abuse, addictions
Loss of a job, the economy, bankruptcy
Family problems and break-ups
Lack of education – not being qualified for well paying job
Poor judgement, making bad choices and laziness
Choice – some people just choose to be homeless
————-
Mental illness
Physical disability
Abuse in the home
– youth runaways
Violence against women

I show a delimiter after “Choice…” because the final four reasons usually only come out after a little prompting about homeless people the volunteers may have encountered that night. I then ask every group to choose from that list they have just offered, the single, most important, or root cause of homelessness. I explain to them that to reduce homelessness we need to prioritize our efforts and direct funding and tax dollars towards the issue that will have the greatest impact. Most groups just narrow the list down to these two or three top causes:

Alcohol and drug addictions
Family break-ups including abusive behavior
Physical and mental disabilities

The groups are reluctant to be more specific, but if I ask them to narrow in on a single cause there is almost an even split between addictions and family dysfunctions.

What would you say is the root cause of homelessness?
Would you add to the list or change the order? Would you select a different criteria for the single most important cause of homelessness? I have an insight that I share with every volunteer. I try to encourage a broader perspective and I’ll go into that in more detail in the next post here on the blog, but I encourage you to leave a comment here on this post right now. This is an issue that needs to be addressed without any further delay.  Share it with your friends.  Re-post it on another blog or website (credit me and link them back here: permalink –  https://missionlog.wordpress.com/2009/07/07/what-do-you-think-is-the-root-cause-of-homelessness/

Share this with your Facebook friends.  Email it.  Share it on StumbleUpon and Google Plus or other favorite social networking site.  Post this question on Twitter –   and let’s track it with a new Twitter hashtag #whyhomeless – cut and paste this now for your Twitter update:

What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? #whyhomeless.

Re-tweet (RT) new answers, comments and links. Make sure I see them by including me with @canayjun in the tweet. I’ll post results and trending answers and share my own insights on the next post right here on the Missionlog.

Thank-you,

<><

Andy Coats.

UPDATE – Sept. 23, 2011: The discussion continues. Visit me the new Facebook page and add your comments, and give it a “Like”

You can read the next post here – What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part II

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