This past weekend, my husband and I voted at the advance poll in our neighbourhood.
One week from today, we’re all going to the polls.
The day after Thanksgiving.
If you’re reading this right now, you have a great deal to be thankful for, including a place to call home. An address. A place to receive your mail.
Unsheltered homeless people don’t have that, although a remarkable municipal, provincial and federal government funded program called Streets to Home is helping these individuals with no "place like home" find supportive housing.
The key word is supportive.
According to "We Are Neighbours," a compelling new study by "The Dream Team and the University of Toronto" Supportive housing transforms lives. All lives. The lives of people who move into their new homes. Their neighbours’ lives, too.
Here's how "Street to Home" works.
People with no place to live except the street are given a range of services to help them find a subsidized apartment to suit them.
They’re given a whole lot more.
For one year, they receive individualized, one-on-one follow-up care, outreach, and social services of all kinds to help them secure identification (which many people on the street don't have), access to income supports, medical counselling and social supports of all kinds.
With supportive housing, the quality of their lives improves. Safety from the brutality of the street transforms them. A significant majority stop drinking alcohol and abusing drugs. Their physical and mental health improves. They stay out of emergency rooms, hospitals and jails, saving the city and province money. They begin to think about their futures instead of their survival from minute-to-minute.
In short – they get a life.
Since this program was launched in 2005, 87% of the 1,500 people who’ve moved into "Street to Home" supportive housing have stayed housed.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of spending Thanksgiving morning at The Scott Mission with about 400 people who cannot all count themselves so lucky. Young and old, women and men, a complete cross-section of ethnicities and cultures reflecting the diversity of our great city.
Too many of us call them “the homeless.”
Just like too many people, including the media, call people like me “the mentally ill.”
It’s time to accept that we’re all individuals with our unique life stories – and reasons why people on the street have lost their addresses.
I spoke to a gentleman that Thanksgiving morning who was living under a bridge near the Lake. He had a bipolar disorder. I showed him my Medic Alert bracelet, which says I have a bipolar disorder, too. We bonded instantly and spent a few minutes talking about our mental health histories.
When his Ontario Disability Benefits were cut back, he couldn’t afford his room and was forced onto the street. He was sleeping in a cardboard box.
A young woman, 16, blonde, blue-eyed, sweet, ran away from home in some northern Ontario town because her stepfather was sexually abusing her. “Being on the street is safer than being at home,” she said.
Another man was laid off a few years earlier. When he couldn’t find a job, and money got tight, his wife left him. Eventually, he lost his house, and ended up in a rooming house. He had a home, if you can call a room a home, but he couldn’t afford rent and food, so he ate at The Scott Mission on Thanksgiving morning.
Not all people living on the street have mental illnesses, but after a few months on the street, you become invisible. Most passers by never look you in the eye. Never talk to you. Never smile or say, “Hi,” or “Good Morning.” The constant cold shoulders, the elements, the mean streets – this life, if you can call it that – can drive anybody insane.
Being invisible to the world you around is crazy-making.
So here’s the question. What comes first? Madness or Homelessness?
Why not do something to stop it. NOW!
Educate yourself. Read Ten Things You Should Know About Housing and Homelessness and Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar's recent story on failed Toronto mayoral candidate Jane Pitfield's passionate and winning campaign to help people off the streets of Toronto.
You can help, too. Speak out. Make homelessness an election issue. Put your heart into it. Talk to your local federal candidates about “Streets to Homes,” this cost-efficient program that saves lives for people who are barely living.
Speak up. You can make a difference this Thanksgiving and this election by making Toronto a kinder city for everyone.