Good People

'Homelessness can strike anyone. It could be you'

Author Mark Sakamoto on how homelessness touched his life, and how his hometown is dealing with the problem

Author Mark Sakamoto on how homelessness touched his life, and how his hometown is dealing with the problem

Mark Sakamoto visits his hometown of Medicine Hat, Alta. to learn about Housing First, and see where his mother spent her last days. 2:33

My mom died alone in a decrepit hotel basement. 

I've spent much of my adult life running away from that sentence. It has hurt me in ways I still do not fully comprehend. 

When my mom was healthy, she was one hell of a mom.  She had a light to her — not a soft, maternal light. More like a match being struck. At 5'3", she lacked physical stature but more than made up for it in bravado. In the early '80s, she stared down more than one burly rancher to create the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in our hometown of Medicine Hat, Alta. 

Then, she got sick. Vodka took over. She left me years before she left life.

Life is cruel in this way. One year, she was carting soccer balls to the pitch for her boys. The next, she was selling her car for booze. I know, because I saw it happen right in front of my eyes. 

Homelessness can strike anyone. It could be you. 

Right now in Canada, families are being pinched in ways we've never seen before. We know why: housing prices are escalating, rents are increasing,  wages are stagnant, technology is displacing jobs. An increasing number of us live on the edge but are a slip away from losing our homes. 

But it does not have to be this way. In some places, it isn't this way. 

A few communities throughout Canada have adopted a Housing First approach: this policy ensures that nobody — under any circumstances — is rendered homeless. If you need a house, you get a house. No questions asked. 

My own hometown of Medicine Hat has embraced Housing First. It's one of the most conservative cities in the country —  not a place where you would expect to see radical social housing policy. But City Hall ran the numbers. For every homeless person in Medicine Hat, they were paying up to $100,000 per year. The cost of giving that same person a roof over their head, a place to feel safe and a place to rebuild one's life: $22,000 per year. The city saves approximately $78,000 annually for every person housed. 

Turns out, eradicating homelessness is not only a compassionate thing to do — it's the cheapest thing to do. 

I don't know if Housing First would have saved my mom. But I do know it would have given her a shot. Maybe that was all she needed. What if that was all she needed? 

Mark Sakamoto (right) and then-Hamilton, Ont. city councillor (now Member of Parliament) Matthew Green talk to homeless Hamilton resident Laura Ritchie outside of her tent. (Good People/CBC)

In Hamilton, Ontario's tent city — home to many of the city's homeless residents — I met James, who had Stage Threecolon cancer. As a Canadian, he was able to receive world-class treatment at Hamilton Health Sciences, which cost the province thousands of dollars. We have, as a nation, decided that health care is a human right. We pride ourselves on this decision. But for some reason, we stopped there, and never decided that having a home is also a basic human right. After receiving his cancer treatment, James was discharged back to his tent on a blustery -15C November morning. This is a decision that we have made together.

But, as Leonard Cohen famously penned: There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. 

The problems that we read about, scroll through and drive past can seem so large and so entrenched that we are overwhelmed. We feel like giving up. We resign ourselves to witnessing the suffering from as far away as possible. Hoping that the big problem doesn't touch us. Doesn't hurt our children. 

It can all feel so dark. 

Fortunately, not everyone gives in. There are people, in the unlikeliest of places, working to meaningfully solve today's biggest issues. Their solutions are ingenious and, often, dead simple. 

I'm looking for the light. For the ones who are making a difference. For these good people.

Watch Good People on CBC Gem, debuting May 8