by Dot Neuls
The recent Yukon News article “By the river, with nowhere else to go” kicked me in the gut. The article and comments that followed left me feeling a little less safe and a lot more special. Well, special-interest-group, anyway.
While any article on social problems seems to invite the uninhibited extremism of anonymous individuals, I know that even the worst of the comments don’t occur in a vacuum.
So tired and old, the prejudiced comments that follow any discourse on social problems arguably have their roots in the Victorian Poor Law of 1834. It is here that the categorization of “the deserving” or “the undeserving” became sanctioned. It is here that some of the comments following “By the river, with nowhere else to go” have their origin.
In this article, more than one commenter referred to people as “garbage bears.” These garbage bears, we learn, aren’t good for tourism. They clash with our new $1.3 million revitalization wharf and forever drift in the face of the riverfront’s purposed condo-owners, business proprietors, bicyclists and yes, even skateboarders.
Garbage bears, we hear, must stop being victims; take responsibility for their lives; cure themselves; pound the pavement looking for jobs and become productive members of society.
Garbage bears and actual bears do have one thing in common: a justified fear and distrust of the productive members of society. The attitude seems to be: don’t feed them, whip up public hysteria, trap them, relocate them, and if that doesn’t work, kill ‘em!
As an experienced mental health and addictions outreach worker, I can tell you for a fact: People with “nowhere else to go” die from the treatment they receive. And while I’d like to believe reference to human beings as “garbage bears” is an aberration, I know it is not. I know it is not because I see this same belief system as a form of oppression and it results in a profound injustice on the most vulnerable people in the Yukon.
According to the Whitehorse Housing Adequacy Study completed by the Department of Health and Social Services, there are approximately 100 homeless people in Whitehorse. According to many respected, thorough, and very specific local, national and international reports, there is a solution that is well within the means of our small community.
From a human rights and social justice perspective, to a federal ultra-conservative money-saving endeavor, we have arrived at an unprecedented agreement: Housing people who are homeless, it turns out, is not only indisputably logical, it is in everyone’s interest. The agreed upon model is called Housing First.
But in Whitehorse, not only do we not house the homeless, we don’t want them to congregate by the riverfront (“By the riverfront with nowhere else to go”); sleep in the bush (“Yukon courts ban camping for the homeless”); or benefit from a drop-in centre (“Funding running out on ‘A Safe Place’ women’s program”).
When I worked in Housing First projects, our primary goal was to house and stabilize people who were in severe and unrelenting crisis – those with astoundingly complex realities and life stories. The people I worked with had a lifetime of exposure to incomprehensible violence and trauma; severe and often untreated mental and physical illness; as well as chronic life-threatening (and sometimes life-saving) addictions. At its most basic, my job was to provide shelter for people who had been homeless for way too long.
And although we did case management – we worked to improve people’s holistic health, safety, resources and community involvement – that isn’t the part I remember the most. My most prominent memory is about connection – the moments shared with people who had no reason to ever trust another person again.
Despite the challenges, housing the “hard to house” is not that hard. Actually, it is exquisitely simple. Housing First is about building relationships, providing basic human rights, security and dignity for all human beings. It is acceptance, love and respect – despite behaviour. It is contextualizing and honouring the strength and resiliency behind such behaviours. It is valuing people for who they are and what they’ve had to do to make it this far.
The simple beauty of the philosophy that guides the Housing First model is the understanding that people heal in their own time. It is also the evidence and working knowledge that people begin to stabilize and improve when their environment is on their side.
I am now an outreach worker on the streets of Whitehorse. I look for people who are homeless and scattered in hide-aways around the city. I don’t want to see anyone face another winter with nowhere else to go. It is the ultimate test of survival and people deserve better.
Winter is approaching and here we go again. Advocating for homes for the homeless, as just one example, warrants designation in a “special interest group.” But you see, this exclusive society the ex-communicated are expected to contribute to is inhospitable, and in its current state, not much to aspire to. It is time to redefine just what constitutes a social problem – a problem that needs to be fixed.
So in the meantime, I will embrace membership as part of a special interest group and hope the day will come when keeping people alive, sheltered and fed is not perceived as a “hand-out” or a “waste of taxpayer money.” I will hold onto the day when treating people with respect and dignity is not very special at all.
Dot Neuls is a member of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.