Bravo to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps for putting homelessness back on Victoria’s political agenda. It’s been a critical issue for years and council’s efforts to wrestle with difficult solutions are to be applauded.
Recently, I participated in a therapeutic-community rehabilitation conference in Italy, during which I learned that Canada is considered to have a low standard of expectation in its chosen solution — harm reduction — for helping the homeless.
Harm reduction is regarded internationally as a Band-Aid solution. Indeed, harm-reduction solutions are seen as essentially “harm acceptance,” a perpetuation of a “welfare state,” when the most desirable focus should be on full and meaningful reintegration into society. This is key, because it is about believing in the individual, even if that individual does not yet believe in himself or herself.
It is understandable that people are protesting against a tent city in any location, even if it is intended to be temporary. We once started soup kitchens and food banks as a temporary ways to feed people.
Although they were always meant to be a stop-gap measure, they have become fixtures with ever-increasing demands placed upon them.
People have grown both weary and wary of temporary solutions that are not really solutions; rather, they are craving solutions to the underlying issues that hold people in poverty — solutions that bring real and lasting relief for all stakeholders.
Crisis-driven solutions essentially become problems that someone else will have to deal with later. Shuffling the problem from one place to the next merely ensures that the problem will grow and fester in a new location.
Of course, it is better that a person injects with a clean syringe, than an infected one. But what next?
Of course, it is good to give someone a meal. But what next?
Of course, offer a cot on a cold and freezing night. But what next?
Of course, giving a person a room is a good idea. But then what?
Detox? Detox is only one-millionth of the solution. Camping in parks? Criminalizing those who are ill? What next?
Although we’ve come to expect homelessness as an inescapable part of urban life, there’s no good reason it needs to be so. Addiction and mental illness are most often adaptations to disconnection, unhealthy environments, purposelessness and despair.
We need to shift our focus from adding more “harm acceptance” and “crisis management” strategies toward reintegration-focused prevention and treatment strategies.
Most cases of drug addiction and mental illness are treatable. So let’s treat them.
People who are homeless crave human connection, empowerment, purpose and meaningful work. So create community, rehabilitation, vocational training and meaningful work (CRTW). Offer a hand up, not a hand out. This will provide the best opportunity for full reintegration into society.
Prevention, or “closing the front door” of homelessness, means, for example, targeting high-probability points of entry, such as discharges from psychiatric or correctional facilities — not just with housing, but with CRTW.
Treatment asserts that many of those struggling on our streets, or languishing in shelters or isolated in housing projects, can also benefit from a CRTW approach. Treat the underlying issues.
Prevention and treatment not only offer respite to those experiencing homelessness and their loved ones, they will lighten the burden on social services, policing and municipal crews as well.
There has been too much confusion, misdirection and discrimination against the homeless, addicted and mentally ill. They have been estranged and cast out to wander about. Homelessness, addiction and mental illness, even today, are all too often considered crimes to be punished, a disgrace to be hushed up, a personality weakness to be deplored or a welfare problem to be handled as cheaply as possible.
All 13 municipalities are parties to homelessness. All 13 have homeless people living in bushes, shelters or vehicles. All have former residents who gravitated to downtown Victoria, and all have something unique to contribute to solving this problem.
All need to drop an attitude of “someone else solving this somewhere else.”
This is a quest for humanity, and of benevolence, of understanding, of wisdom, of compassion, of empathy, of taking positive strategic action and of providing answers. This is about shattering stigma, confusion, fears and prejudice around poverty, addictions, mental illness and homelessness through education, leadership and inclusivity. This is about focusing on the core underlying issues and creating real and lasting solutions by thinking and acting “outside the cardboard box.”
This is about our collective humanity.
Richard Leblanc is founder and executive director of the Creating Homefulness Society and Woodwynn Farms Therapeutic Community for the Homeless.