In Ottawa Ontario Canada, the Salvation Army have just had approval from Ottawa’s City Council to move from their current location to 333 Montreal Road, in the Vanier area. The Salvation Army said that according to their research, they have many “clients” in the area, and as a result will be able to help more people than they can in their current location. They’re also going to put their money where their mouth is, spending fifty (50) million dollars for the new facility.
For some additional context to this, Vanier has a certain “reputation” in the city. Some buildings look run down, there’s questionable businesses like payday loans centres. The area has been described by many within the city as “sketchy”. As a result, residents of Ottawa (including those in Vanier proper) have voiced some concerns regarding the homeless shelter. During a conversation I recently had, they mentioned four concerns/comments regarding the building of the homeless shelter:
1) Concerns about “the population it brings” (ie; more homeless people migrating to Vanier).
2) Shelters “entrench” homelessness.
3) The quality of life in the area will go down.
4) Only through economics and revenue generation can we fight homelessness. Instead of spending fifty million on a shelter, the money should be used towards grants so people can startup businesses.
For the first point, I mentioned something in my last post about this, but I want to discuss it in more detail. Primarily because it’s personal; I was once homeless myself, and this first point and what it entails is something I know about.
Some may think the homeless are vagabonds and travel extensively, however the majority of the homeless have set patterns and routines.
A part of this stems from the concept of “stability”. Being homeless is a very unstable situation. Not knowing the next time you eat, not knowing where you will sleep, and more. As a result, those who are homeless often crave stability, and as a result will structure their lives in a fashion where they remain in familiar locations, with familiar sights and sounds. In a sense, this area becomes their “home”. A metaphysical shelter, as it were.
The concept of stability also comes with those who have anxiety problems as well, either psychological or psychiatric. People who suffer with anxiety problems will often stay in specific areas and do specific routines because it gives them a degree of comfort. Speaking as someone with a severe psychiatric anxiety disorder from the time I was born, even now I still favor routines, systems, and stability in my life. The term I use to describe this sometimes is “known knowns”, you known knowns are a touchstone in the life as someone with severe anxiety. I’m one of the lucky ones; I own a house. But even within my house, there is specific ways that things are set up, specific layouts, items placed in a specific fashion. For the homeless, who do not even have a house of their own, if they have anxiety problems they will seek comfort and stability through, again – establishing a “home base”.
The above is both from observation and personal experience from being homeless. Where some people will claim “oh, they’ll all migrate over here”, the reality is that many (many) homeless people will not do that for the reasons I listed above. The idea of migrating to an unknown area outside of their “home base” is too much for them, even it if it means a warm bed. If you consider the above, that’s why there’s some non-profit and city-run groups who drive around and pick up homeless people on dangerously cold nights.
If this was a “safe injection site”, I could see this point about people migrating over to Vanier. “Safe injection” facilities *do* have people migrate to them, but there’s important context that needs to be applied here; the power of the addiction to the drugs overrides their preference to stay in a specific area. But even then, the idea of stability and a “home base” even extends to substance abuse. I may be straight-edge, but I’ve met a few folks over the years who at one point struggled with drug addictions of some kind. Again, these folks stayed in specific areas because their “contacts” were in those areas. Regardless of that, this isn’t a “safe injection site”, no one who is homeless and has a substance abuse issue will come over to 333 Montreal Road to score a hit, when they can do so in the stability of their known known area.
At this point I need to mention something that could be a huge positive. It’s a new shelter being built in an area that is one of the most impoverished in the city. And based on everything I said above, there isn’t a sufficient reason for the homeless in other areas to break their patterns and migrate over. If they do migrate to Vanier, that’s an incredibly POSITIVE sign – it means they’ll willing to do what they can to change and improve their lives. The most basic of selfcare; staying in a warm building. They’re willing to undertake some sort of CHANGE in order to improve their situation. This is a huge deal, because like I said above – mental, emotional, and physical survival in these situations often involve routines, patterns, systems, and seeking stability.
The very idea that the shelter could bring about those kinds of changes is an incredible positive, and should be celebrated.
Regarding quality of life near shelters, suffice to say that we don’t see education suffering at the University of Ottawa, which is near both the Ottawa Mission and Saint Joe’s Supper table. There’s a giant mall and several stores nearby as well, all of which haven’t suffered in the least. And you certainly can’t say investments aren’t happening in that area, since the Light Rail will be present around that section.
Finally, about economics and poverty. I think spending money on government programs for second careers and skills development is great. In fact, I am a graduate of the second careers/skills development program myself (thanks to Skills Development Canada). However, what you need to keep in mind is that you need a two-pronged approach regarding the homeless:
1) Provide a means for the homeless to improve their situation, so they can claw their way off the streets.
2) Provide a means for the homeless to survive during their darkest hours, such as when it’s minus forty outside.
These are not mutually exclusive items, you need both. To dismiss one is folly. And this shelter at 333 will do both of these things. For the former, as I said above if can provide a positive change for people, as they begin to recognize the value of changing their situation, going outside their comfort zone, and yes – providing themselves with some selfcare. For the latter, it’s a tangible place for the homeless in Vanier to go to when they need shelter.
From a Catholic spirituality perspective, all of this is best described by the Corporal Works of Mercy. For a concrete example, we can look no further than the Mendicants – who for centuries have provided shelter and food for the poor and the homeless. Specifically, the sons and daughters of the father of the mendicants; Saint Francis of Assisi.
There’s so much more that I could say about this. I could say what it’s like to be homeless. I could say what it’s like to be on the streets freezing. I could say what it feels like to drop under 150 pounds so there’s no body fat to keep you warm, because you can’t afford to eat as much as you should. I could say what it’s like not remembering when your clothes were last washed. I could say what it’s like to ask people for help, but not tell them exactly how bad things are so no one knows your true situation. I could say more about that many homeless people aren’t vagabonds, and will stay in a community and/or area for many different reasons, even though there may be shelter elsewhere – so opening up a 350 bed shelter is going to attract people who are already living in that area. I could say let’s trust the non-profit group who specializes in dealing with the homeless, so when they say that they have clients in the area, lets listen to their expertise that their building will be filled with local folks. I could say that the non-profit who specializes in working with the homeless have done research, and that the demand is higher in the Vanier area than their current location. I could say that when people argue about the new shelter being on a “main road”, the Ottawa Mission is literally at the Laurier bus stop, beside the University of Ottawa, *and* beside the Rideau Center. I could say that a broken-down motel isn’t safe and attracts less than reputable situations and people, and that if you want to revitalize a neighborhood dropping fifty million bucks to fix such a dive is a great start. I could say a *non-profit* spending fifty million bucks sets a great example for the private and public sectors.
Instead, to the city councilors who voted in favor of the shelter, I’ll say this:
On behalf of those who are currently homeless, and those of us who have been homeless in the past; thank you for helping those who are missing some of the most very basic essential things we take for granted every day. And a very special thanks to my man Tim Tierney (my city councilor), who according to initial reports in the Ottawa Citizen and CBC Ottawa, once again proved he is a man of integrity by voting in favor of giving the homeless in Vanier a place to stay when the winter weather is literally trying to kill them. -40 Celsius is -40 Fahrenheit.
Until next time, courage.