Dear Homeless Hub,
I always hear mixed responses to whether you should give homeless people money on the street. Some say it only fuels addiction. What's the best way in your day to day life to help the homeless?
This is a question that I was asked a lot when I was teaching the “Homelessness in Canadian Society” course at Ryerson University. My answer was always the same “It’s your choice, but have the decency to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them.”
That sounds simple, but the fact is, many people who are panhandling are routinely ignored, sworn at, harassed, robbed and assaulted. Having someone look them in the eye and recognize them as a person can be very affirming.
Personally, I don’t give money frequently, but I do on occasion. Living in a big urban environment means that a walk downtown could result in several encounters with people who are panhandling. I also prefer not to pull my wallet out in the middle of the street – not for fear of the panhandler, but rather of an opportunistic purse thief – so it will depend if I have change in my pocket.
What I tell my students, going back to the question of “should I give money?” is that it really is a choice that you need to make for yourself. However, if you choose to give someone money, what that money gets spent on is no longer in your control. When I give a server a tip at a restaurant I don’t get to dictate that they should only buy food or pay for housing with it. The money is theirs and the spending choice is theirs.
If you’re worried about the money going to alcohol or drugs there are a few options:
- Give the money to an organization working with people experiencing homelessness.
- Buy a street newspaper.
- Buy a small gift card – i.e. for a local coffee shop or fast food restaurant.
- Use the money to donate food to a food bank.
Buying food instead of giving money is something that a lot of people ask about and it is going to come down to choice for the panhandler again. I’m the world’s pickiest eater; I would have a hard time trusting that the food someone hands me on the street is safe, edible and something I will like. Most of us like to have the ability to choose what we want to eat and when we want to eat it. Giving a panhandler a coffee instead of cash may be your preference, but if it’s the fifth coffee they’ve been handed in 20 minutes, they may well refuse it.
Part of the Ryerson course includes an organized – and safely conducted – opportunity for students to experience panhandling themselves. (The money is donated to an agency working on the issue of homelessness or students can choose to give the money directly to someone who is panhandling.)
I asked some past students about their experience:
Shannon Kaloczi said that while it hasn’t changed the amount she gives people it has affected how she treats panhandlers.
Before [the course] I think I was naive as to how hard panhandling can be, and now I never pass by without at least a smile. When [the instructor] sent us out, that was the hardest part, being disregarded and looked at as if we were nothing, so now I try not to make others feel the same way.
Emerald Lacaille had a similar experience. She says:
I think the biggest difference since I took the course is that I treat people differently than I did before. I smile, say hello, and do what I can to help, when the opportunity arises, and if I feel safe. I see those experiencing homelessness as community members versus "the other". I treat them as I would anyone else I encounter on the street. I don't think one person can help everyone, but I think everyone can help at least one person.
Stephanie Teppo’s feelings are also similar.
I still give money or food as I have always had. I always give what I can and what I feel comfortable with. What has changed was I am more comfortable to engage and interact with the person. Everyone has a story. If they want to share their story with me, I am happy to listen.
Some background on panhandling:
A 2002 report “Income and Spending Patterns Among Panhandlers” in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shared results from interviews with 54 panhandlers in Toronto. They found that while all had been homeless at some point in their life only 65% were currently homeless. 24% had their own room or apartment but needed to panhandle to gain additional income.
It also found that “their single largest reported expense was food” and that “for the one-fourth of panhandlers who rent a room or apartment, however, any loss of income could easily lead to homelessness.”
A research report a few years ago from the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg titled "Does Panhandling Provide a Living?" focused on panhandlers in Winnipeg. It found that “Of those who estimated their daily panhandling earnings, 40% reported making between ten and thirty dollars per day, while 38% said they earned more than thirty dollars daily. Only 22% reported making more than fifty dollars per day.”
A very telling comment from that report stated, “When asked the question “What if panhandling just wasn’t an option?” 27% did not have any answer. They seemed to be at a complete loss. Another 17.5% said that they wouldn’t be able to do anything and/or they would go hungry. This suggests that for almost half of the interviewees, panhandling is their final option or last resort.”
Panhandling is also an area of intense criminalization of poverty and homelessness. In “The Expressive Liberty of Beggars: Why it matters to them, and to us”, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the issue of panhandling being a sign of someone being at wit’s end is mentioned: “It is morally perplexing that in 21st century Canada it could be a punishable offence for one person to say to another, peacefully, in a public place, 'I’m in trouble and need help.' Yet that is the effect of City of Winnipeg Bylaw No. 128/2005.1. Other Canadian and American cities have enacted similar legislation, and a fast-growing body of jurisprudence in both Canada and America testifies to the fact that the criminalization of panhandling has become a kind of battleground. On this battleground, a clash occurs between competing values: social 'hygiene' vs. freedom of expression; middle class discomfort vs. un-derclass economic need; commercial interest of downtown business owners vs. beggars’ right to plead for subsistence.”
For further reading and information on panhandling check out the Hub’s topic : Panhandling, Busking and Squeegeeing.
Here at the Homeless Hub we love infographics. They are such a great way of conveying information. We’re going to share our favourites – created by us or others – every week, along with some research links to provide context.
This week’s infographic comes from the American Institutes for Research and is based on the “Service and Housing Interventions for Families in Transition (SHIFT) Longitudinal Study”.
This study “examines the effectiveness of different housing and service models in helping families who are experiencing homelessness establish and maintain residential stability and self-sufficiency.” While it has a focus in New York State the information can be transferred to the rest of the United States and similar data exists for Canada.
I found this comment in the report extremely striking, “Not since the Great Depression have significant numbers of families and children been homeless. During the 1980’s, families were a small segment of the homeless population, but in the last few decades their numbers have steadily climbed and now comprise approximately 38% of the overall homeless population.”
This meshes with a 2011 fact sheet from the YWCA’s Rose Campaign which says, “Violence against women is the leading cause of women’s homelessness in Canada. Every year, violence and abuse drive over 100,000 women and children out of their homes and into emergency shelters.”
What I think often gets missed is the connection to kids. If the leading cause of women’s homelessness is violence then the leading cause of children’s homelessness is also violence. Certainly there are linkages with other factors, such as poverty, but violence is key.
For street youth violence continues to play a role. A 2010 joint report from the Homeless Hub and Justice for Children and Youth “Surviving Crime and Violence Street Youth and Victimization in Toronto” found: 85.9% of female street youth reported being victims of crime compared to 71.8% of young males.
- This was true across all categories of crime including property crime and violent crime.
- 38.2% of female street youth reported being victims of sexual assault.
- Amongst female street youth, black females were much more likely to report being victims of sexual assault (47%) than were white females (33%).
- 60% of queer female youth report being victims of sexual assault during the past year.
The report also found that intimate partner violence (IPV) was also a serious issue for female street youth. “Over 55% report at least one incident of IPV (and of those, 79.5% reported more than one incident). Fifty-three percent reported emotional abuse, and 35% reported physical violence.”
Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke, a Violence Against Women shelter, has a very powerful PSA that speaks to the issues of violence and homelessness for women:
We are hiring! If you are an undergrad student at York University with an interest in homeless issues, we may have a position for you. Through the Research At York (RAY) program we’ll be hiring three undergrads to help us with our work. Duties will vary but could include creating films, making infographics, writing blogs, monitoring social media and of course, research on homelessness. Deadline to apply is August 23rd. See our job posting for more details.
Our Ask the Hub blog last week got a lot of traction. In large part, it was due to the great infographic designed by our incoming Graduate Assistant, Isaac “The Iceman” Coplan. This new Friday feature lets you ask us the questions. We’ll answer with research-based information, or find someone who is an expert on that topic to respond. Last week’s question was:
Many times when I come across a person who appears to be homeless, he/she also seems to be mentally ill. In your experience, have you discovered that most homeless people are also dealing with a mental illness of some sort? If so, is one kind of mental illness more prominent than others? Read our answer.
The West Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Toronto has shared a valuable study conducted by researchers at U of T and their partners about the risks for homelessness. Here at the Hub we believe that prevention is key to solving homelessness and our State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 report showed that a great many Canadians are at risk. The research – part of the Family Homelessness in the Inner Suburbs – finds that only 1 in 10 families in Toronto’s inner suburbs are adequately housed. Researchers used a Homelessness Risk Index to make their assessments focusing on 6 key data points:
- Unaffordable housing,
- Overcrowded housing,
- Unsafe housing,
- Insecure housing,
- Bad unit conditions, and
- Bad building conditions.
Social Planning Toronto produced a great summary of a recent community meeting. It states, “Initial results show that about half of the families surveyed are facing one to two major housing problems, while 1 in 3 families are facing severe or critical housing problems and risk of homelessness.”
Speaking of risk, a blog post from the National Alliance to End Homelessness shared a youth homelessness vulnerability index proposal that was presented at the 2013 National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Factors that put youth at risk include:
- Violence at home amongst family members,
- Differences in religious beliefs with parents/guardians/caregivers,
- Left group or foster home,
- First marijuana use under the age of 12,
- Spent time in jail or juvenile detention before the age of 18, and
- Been pregnant or gotten someone else pregnant.
Developed by Eric Rice from the University of Southern California, in conjunction with CSH’s Stable Homes, Brighter Futures project, the research finds that only 10% of homeless youth meet 4 or more of the criteria.
For 37 years, Prisoners' Justice Day in Canada has stood for, and been hailed as, a somber reminder of the unnecessary deaths of Edward Nalon on August 10th 1974 and Robert Landers in May of 1976. Both men died while being detained in Millhaven Prison’s Maximum Security segregation unit. Initially, the recognition of August 10th as Prisoners' Justice Day was started by a group of inmates being held at the same prison on the first anniversary of Nalon's death. However, it has since expanded into the community and prisons across the nation and it is utilized to highlight the conditions that inmates face on a daily basis, as well as a day to remember all those men and women who have died behind prison walls. Prisoners' Justice Day events have been used to educate the public and to advocate for changes regarding the treatment of those in custody and the need for prison reform.
The John Howard Society of Toronto and many of its affiliates across the nation recognize with fervor the need to have prisoner’s fundamental rights acknowledged and upheld. John Howard himself (2 September 1726 - 20 January 1790) was a prison reformer and an English political figure who fought tirelessly to overhaul the prison system having not only observed but also experienced some of the atrocities that took place within so many of the goals throughout the country and abroad.
To this day, the affiliates of the John Howard Societies across Canada seek to develop understanding of and effective responses to the problems of crime and its causes. John Howard Society organizations offer programs and services that are geared towards reducing recidivism rates and increasing community safety through the provision of addiction counselling, anger management, pre-release prison support and assistance to find and maintain housing. Many affiliates also advocate for safe, affordable housing, solutions to poverty and ways to enhance the quality of life for those affected by the criminal justice system.
In 2010, The John Howard Society of Toronto undertook and compiled a research study that focused on the housing trajectories of inmates in Toronto's three remand centres. The data obtained was used to inform the results of the study entitled “Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless” which looked at the correlation between incarceration and homelessness. In addition to examining some of the issues facing men in custody who identified as being homeless at the time of their release, the study also captured information about their immediate and anticipated service needs in the months after release. Other research conducted by the John Howard Society of Toronto found that incarceration was a catalyst for homelessness in the GTA and that anywhere from ⅓ to more than ½ of inmates leaving custody would have no fixed address upon the completion of their short term sentences.
In 2013, we know still, that there stands a need for reform and the need for fundamental rights, such as accommodations upon release, to be recognized fully. We understand how through appropriate and meaningful community supports, those involved in the criminal justice system can reintegrate into society with positive results inevitably improving their quality of life. This is not simply a dream but a reality that can be achieved with the support of communities, agencies and regulating bodies who understand that a sense of security and hope, can greatly improve the life of those who at one time, lacked hope. We strive to achieve this through the work we do for those who have little ability to assist themselves in what must seem like, an unforgiving world and we acknowledge and thank those who share this vision.
For more information please visit our Topic - Legal & Justice Issues: Criminalization of Homelessness.
Ainsley Cripps has been an employee of the John Howard Society of Toronto for the past seven years and has worked in the capacity of Resettlement Court Worker and Native Inmate Liaison Officer. She currently works in all three of Toronto's Remand Centres overseeing the Native Program for First Nations, Metis and Inuit individuals looking for traditional healing and discharge planning. Ainsley is of Mohawk descent and is very ingrained within Toronto's Native community, assisting with Discharge Planning and community referrals to help inmates reintegrate into the community, successfully.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
Dear Homeless Hub
Many times when I come across a person who appears to be homeless, he/she also seems to be mentally ill. In your experience, have you discovered that most homeless people are also dealing with a mental illness of some sort? If so, is one kind of mental illness more prominent than others?
Niagara Falls, Ontario
Mental illness is often misunderstood in our society, and this is particularly true as it pertains to people who are homeless or street-involved. It can sometimes be challenging to determine how many homeless people have mental health issues and what types or substance use issues because of the lack of research and data. It is also a challenge to determine whether the mental health issue or substance use caused the person to enter homelessness, or whether these issues arose from their experience of being homeless.
In 2007, the Canadian Institute for Health Information published “Mental Health and Homelessness” report that outlined a number of studies on mental health. There was some general information, but they mainly focused on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, substance use and depression. Studies have found that as many as 29% of shelter users have met criteria for one of several mental illnesses including: anti-social personality disorder (along with depression), PTSD or psychotic disorder.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The same report drew attention to research of homeless youth that found 24% of youth met the criteria for PTSD. Additionally, 40% of youth who met the criteria for Substance Use Disorder also met the criteria for PTSD.
Schizophrenia: There are also overlaps with schizophrenia. One study in Toronto of 300 shelter users found 6% had a psychotic disorder (including schizophrenia). Another study with 124 shelter users in Vancouver found that 7 out of 124 shelter users (nearly 6%) had schizophrenia. This is a significant increase when compared to the general population diagnosis rate of 1%. Substance Use - Throughout Canada, the well-being survey found that 1 to 4% of Canadians have suffered from issues with substance dependence. Several studies have looked at substance dependence and homelessness. A study in Toronto found 68% of shelter users reported a diagnosis of dependence sometime in their life. A study in Vancouver found 44% of homeless adults used non-prescription drugs in the past month. A study in Edmonton found 55% of youth had reported using at least one of the following four drugs in the past year: cocaine, heroin, amphetamines or tranquilizers.
Depression: Throughout Canada, 14-17% of women and 7-10% of men have been diagnosed with depression. In a study conducted in Ottawa, 39% of male youth experiencing homelessness reported symptoms of depression, compared with 20% of male youth who are housed. A separate study, also conducted in Ottawa, found 33% of adult males experiencing homelessness reported having difficulties with mental health; 20% had depression.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) estimates that between 25 to 50% of homeless people in Canada have mental illness. Out of those with severe mental illness, up to 70% also have difficulty with substance abuse.
MHCC also found that 520,700 people with mental illness are inadequately housed and up to 119,800 people with mental illness are experiencing homeless. Despite these high numbers, there are only 25,000 supportive housing units currently available across Canada.
The interim report (Sept 2012) from the At Home/Chez Soi project administered by MHCC states: “Over 900 individuals from our shelters and on our streets who have not been well served by our current approach are now housed in adequate, affordable and suitable settings. Eighty six percent of participants remain in their first or second unit (as of August 2012). At 12 months those in the Housing First intervention had spent an average of 73% of their time in stable housing. In contrast, those in treatment as usual (TAU) spend only 30% of their time in stable housing. This creates the possibility of better long term health and social functioning outcomes for individuals who have histories of trauma and poor health. Once housed many are beginning to take advantage of the safer places and the opportunities that are created to make better life choices – including pursing opportunities to engage in part or full-time employment.”
As you can see Kerry, it’s hard to get an exact fix on the numbers. What the research does tell us is that there is a strong link between homelessness or insecure housing and mental health issues. Certainly, research has proven that a Housing First approach to solving homelessness – no matter what an individual’s issues are – allows a person to stay housed and to address their other issues over time.
For more information on the relationship between homelessness and mental health visit our Topic - Mental Health.
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.