A couple of weeks ago I spent hours enthralled by a short video series on the research project by the National Film Board called At Home: In search of a cure for a 21st Century Crisis. It’s been my opinion for a while that we should pay for housing out of public funds if it comes to that so that people have a starting point from which to solve some of their other problems. For this reason, this project seemed really interesting and innovative.
Watching those videos brought me right back mentally to the first time I ever saw a homeless person lying on the street and asking for change. He seemed old and looked really rough. He was talkative. It was in Toronto and I was a 15 year-old out-of-towner.
What I knew then about poverty and mental illness was limited to the few families I knew in my community and what I experienced within my own home, where we always had a safe place to sleep and plenty of nutritious meals. So I was shocked and saddened and concerned when I met that man, the first homeless person I ever saw, but I didn’t understand him or his situation.
I think I get it a bit better now, but not fully. I now know that it’s not smart or compassionate to think about people in this situation as “the homeless.” Their precarious (or total lack of) housing doesn’t define them, but it is a problem. These people are the marginalized of society, and are often dealing with not only chronic poverty but issues around addiction and/or abuse and/or mental illness.
The At Home/Chez Soi project by the Mental Health Commission of Canada aimed to see what would happen if people without homes were given free housing as a social service. It is a “housing first” model implemented in New York. The Canadian found that where housing was covered first, massive savings were found from other areas such as healthcare and the prison system.
Homelessness is not an easy or simple problem, but it is possible to work on. Paying for housing first, so that people actually have a chance to focus on issues other than poverty later, seems like one of the best ways to do it.