Imagine for a second what it must be like to live in extreme poverty.
You likely have inadequate housing and find it hard to get a good night sleep.
As a result you’re a little slow – a little out of it.
Plus, you haven’t been getting enough to eat, your blood sugar starts to get low and you probably get a little irritable.
When you’re hungry and tired, how do you behave?
A little crazy?
Some of the symptoms that people often attribute to mental illness are actually the result of hunger, said Dr. Bernie Pauly, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Nursing.
Pauly was in Whitehorse last week as part of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition’s string of events recognizing Poverty and Homelessness Action Week.
She stressed the fact that mental illness and addiction are often symptoms of homelessness, not its cause.
And the response to these problems has to focus on housing as an initial step.
“Because when someone is on the street, if there is pre-existing mental illness or drug use problems, it will only get worse on the street,” said Pauly.
“Or some people don’t have those problems and, living on the street, they end up initiating drug use.
“I mean, it makes sense, right? It’s depressing.”
Once someone does develop a problem with addictions or mental illness, it is much easier to deal with that problem if the person has a home.
The message that Pauly gave those who attended her discussion last Wednesday, is that preventing and solving the problem of extreme poverty has to be done through three things: housing, income and supports.
“I’ve noticed that when people have a safe place to sleep – so they’re not sleep deprived – and if they have adequate quantity and quality of food to eat then you see some of the ‘symptoms’ of mental illness and addiction disappear or decrease for the most part.”
Pauly’s research interests include access to health care, health inequities, homelessness, addiction, harm reduction and HIV/AIDS among other things.
In 2007, Pauly was part of the city of Victoria’s Mayor Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness, Mental Illness and Addiction.
In this task force, Pauly worked on the gap analysis team – looking at what services the city was providing and what services were still needed.
Her team found that what was primarily needed was housing.
As a result 100 individual affordable housing units were created.
This sounds like a lot, but the task force also found that there were at least 1,500 people living in inadequate housing.
Pauly continues to lobby for housing as part of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which was formed at the recommendation of the mayor’s task force.
Last week, Pauly was extremely busy giving talks and having meetings with many groups throughout Whitehorse.
She was so busy, in fact, that she had to be interviewed during her breakfast at the Westmark hotel.
“You probably have a lot of homelessness that is not visible in this community,” she said spreading jam on a piece of toast.
“And generally homelessness is a form a extreme poverty.”
People living outdoors and on the streets, is just one form of poverty, said Pauly.
People living in shelters, hospitals or even in prisons are homeless because they do not have stable housing.
Then you have people who are couch surfing who do not have what Pauly calls “security of tenure,” meaning they could be kicked out at any moment.
And then there’s another sort of group that’s living in inadequate housing, where there’s overcrowding in a small space or the building is rundown and not up to building standards.
“In BC, there are a lot of problems on the reserves with mould in the housing,” said Pauly.
“And this is causing health problems.”
The reasons that housing needs to be thought of as the number one priority for combating poverty can be seen by putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
Shelters, for example, are not the solution.
“Have you ever been to a shelter before? They’re not like hotel rooms, generally it’s a room with as many beds crammed into it as possible,” said Pauly.
“If you had a choice between staying there or sleeping in a tent or on the street, where would you go?”
Contact Chris Oke at