On a particular night in February, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, with the help of other agencies, conducted a facility count. They found 1,143 people being sheltered throughout the city. More than 10 per cent of this number was comprised of youths.
The numbers did not include those who were sleeping outdoors, couch surfing or living in an inadequate accommodation.
While the results remind us that homelessness and near-homelessness are still key issues in our community, they should also remind us that it is a mistake to identify the homeless problem of Victoria only with those we see wandering the streets or sleeping in doorways.
The visible street population is only the tip of the iceberg of hundreds of youths, single adults and families who are insecurely, inappropriately, or hardly housed at all.
The lack of affordable rental units, the obscene cost of hydro and the lack of a living wage lock hundreds of youths and adults into an unstable and transitory living situation.
Understandably, many voters resent the sight of homeless people and demand that someone – anyone – clean up the streets. Consequently, the city has been trying to respond to this resentment by slowly policing the visible homeless out of sight.
In the meantime, many people who work with the homeless and near-homeless agree that housing this growing population, and preventing it from happening, is achievable with the right policies. What is lacking is the public will to demand that governments act in a way that looks for long-term solutions to the problem.
Unfortunately, while we decry the sight of the homeless, few if any voters are outraged enough to make it a political issue.
Human nature being what it is, we hate being in the presence of those who, through no fault of their own, are jobless, near-homeless and generally down on their luck.
The presence of marginalized youth, men and women standing in front of a welfare office evokes deep fears in each of us about our own vulnerability and weakness.
All these fears and feelings of vulnerability get projected onto those who – all too often with legitimate reasons – need help to avoid being homeless.
Instead of accepting our own vulnerability and responding with integrity, we prefer to believe the homeless and near-homeless choose to be a blight on our city. We say they are lazy, drunk,
stupid, ignorant folks who won’t hold down a job.
The coalition has been working tirelessly to identify and formulate recommendations that will turn off the tap to the circumstances that feed homelessness. Its vision is to prevent homelessness from re-occurring through long-term policies that treat people in a dignified and principled way.
However, without the public will to demand that governments invest in long-term solutions, such recommendations will not be taken seriously.
In the end, we have to stop blaming the homeless and near-homeless for their plight and begin to act like mature citizens who care.
Currently, the province and the Capital Regional District have among the highest poverty rates in the country. Behind the contingent of visible homeless on the street, there is a larger number of youths, individuals and families on the cusp of becoming homeless. Both populations must be addressed.
In the coming civic elections, voters must raise a loud and audible cry, demanding that local politicians invest in long-term policies, and financial commitments and forge structures that eventually work to
prevent people from joining the ranks
of the homeless and near-homeless.
Mark Muldoon is executive director of the Threshold Housing Society.