PART ONE: Pre-Amble
Part One of this article was written by Stephen Gaetz, President & CEO, Canadian Observatory on Homelessnes; Melanie Redman, President & CEO, A Way Home Canada; Alina Turner, Principal, Turner Strategies
In light of the recently launched National Housing Strategy with a clear recognition of housing as a human right and commitment to ending homelessness, we want to ensure that measurable targets and goals drive towards the elimination of homelessness; however, without a clear sense of what homelessness actually means, how will we ever know where we stand on progress towards this objective?
From 2015-2017, the School of Public Policy, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness supported a collaborative process to develop a national definition of an end to homelessness (Turner, Albanese, & Pakeman, 2016). Through this process, we also proposed key measures and indicators that can be used to track progress. The final paper proposes a definition and key measures regarding measuring an end to homelessness, which will be used as a springboard for consultations over the coming months with service providers, policy makers, funders, researchers and those with lived experience.
Dimensions of Functional and Absolute Zero End to Homelessness
We heard loud and clear from consultations with lived experience and sector partners that as efficient as our Homeless-Serving System is, if the experience on the ground is not aligned with what our measures are telling us, then we are missing something. But what exactly does this mean? Why do we need to pay such close attention to the Lived Experience lens in this work? Can’t we just assume that if we have an optimal homeless-serving system that places people into housing quickly, the rest will fall into place?
The Making Zero Count project, led by the COH, focuses on supporting communities engaged in systems planning to consider planning and performance in a more expansive and supportive way than simply whether people are housed or not. This project will place the voice of people with lived experience at the centre of this work.
PART TWO: A Lived Experience View of Functional & Absolute Zero
To honour the lived experience, Ange Neil, who is an Indigenous youth from Calgary, AB has graciously offered this blog to further our understanding and dialogue on defining an end to homelessness in Canada.
When asked what ending homelessness means to me, a lot comes to mind. I wonder: is my experience of homelessness valid enough? I question if I can contribute to this discussion. My experience of homelessness isn’t the only version of homelessness and it is not the end to this conversation. But if I’ve learned anything about life so far, it is that vulnerability matters, and challenging systematic oppression is only possible when voices come together. So I hope you read my story and that it brings something to the conversation regarding the eradication of homelessness in our nation.
June 2016 was the last time I left home, carrying a backpack; I was finally able to empty my car of the accumulated clothing pile. That was the last time I felt homeless. I came home and told my roommate: “Today I left the house with every intention and desire of coming home. I had no clothes or basic-necessities with me!” And I’ve come home everyday since that day, knowing this house is home. This home is safety, community, and it’s not going anywhere.
Jesse Thistle (2017) recently published a document describing Indigenous homelessness. I am Indigenous & part of the LGBTQ2S+ community, and when I read the definition of homelessness defined from Indigenous worldviews, and not a euro-centric view, I felt validation for my experience. When it speaks about the isolation from things like “…place, family … each other …identities” (2017, p. 6), I resonate with this. It’s vital to understand that homelessness goes beyond having or not having four walls around you. Further themes have emerged in various research regarding the homeless experience; and from what I’ve found, every data collection presents the theme that homelessness includes a lack of community. If we are going to define the end of homelessness we need to decide and agree on what homelessness is.
Are we ending House-lessness or Home-lessness?
The beginning of my homelessness journey is hard to pinpoint. As a child, I grew up in poverty and at a young age faced the risk of homelessness due to my father’s addiction. Then when I was 12 years old, the dysfunction in my home led me to running away for periods of time and crashing at friends’ houses.
I think the age of 12 is when I began my decade of backpack living. When I was 17 years old, I finally completely ran away and was housed by a family friend for 6 months. My quickly declining mental health, addictions, and trauma led to the breakdown of this placement and I was faced with hitting the streets and dropping out of high school. At 18, I was housed at a Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary foyer model transitional housing program. I lived there for three years and found much healing during that time. But my risk for homelessness was still a reality.
From the BGCC program I had gained enough stability to enter community housing and found a bachelor apartment suite with Calgary Housing. I was now in university and bettering my life. I was in recovery for addictions and mental health disorders. Life was supposed to be okay now. I was housed. I had been housed for the past 3 years and was contributing to society now.
But my story isn’t so simple.
I lacked safety in this community placement and was forced to move out, due to dangerous neighbours. I lived in 2 basement suites after this and still lacked the feeling of safety, belonging, and stability. I had four walls this time but was struggling so much; I spent most of 2014-2016 couch surfing and living out of my car. I still accessed emergency rental programs, food bank and grocery donation programs, and debated paying rent or buying food multiple times. I would spend my days on school campus and drive around late at night until I couldn’t stay awake anymore. On paper, I was housed now. I couldn’t possibly still feel homeless. And to some reading this, they may argue there is a difference between physically being homeless and feeling homeless. And maybe they’re right. But I also think once you’ve experienced physical homelessness, it takes a lot more than having four walls in your name to feel like you belong, and that home is safe.
More than housing.
By giving you context to some of my story, I hope to describe the common themes that ending homelessness needs to include making sustainable change in Canada. We need to go beyond housing people and just expecting them to figure the rest out. There is a lot more that goes into solving homelessness versus houselessness. We need to create community, security, and affordability.
When did backpack living and homelessness end for me?
I was connected to a community that helped me treat my mental health disorders. This led to stability. I learned how to build a community, which led me to finding two safe, healthy friends that I could move in with in 2016. Having these friends to move in with allowed me to find secure and affordable housing. I’ve had financial difficulties living in the home I found with these two friends, but the community I had assisted with food when I could only afford rent and utilities.
After years of support, skill building, and encouragement, I’m at a place of emotional, financial, and physical security. I don’t attribute this place I’m currently in solely because I “pulled up my boot-straps and worked hard.” I attribute it to my resiliency and strength, but also the community and resources that surrounded me.
I reflect on my journey so far and question: was I homeless during this time or was I living in poverty? I think both. At times I was homeless, other times at-risk of homelessness, and near the end living in poverty. All are not okay. All lead to risk of poorer physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health outcomes. All lead to my life costing our country more. All lead to me struggling to live my best life. If my story can challenge the systemic institutions and people in power to create change for those young people who come after me, then all those sleepless nights and hungry days are worth it.