Homelessness – The Root Causes – Part I
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
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.
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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