Manitoba·Opinion

We're failing people who are homeless, and they're dying because of it

Former NDP health minister Sharon Blady says the shooting deaths of people without housing in B.C. are connected to hate-filled rhetoric.

Former Manitoba health minister connects Langley, B.C., shootings to society's indifference to homelessness

A police officer stands in the foreground of a parking lot, with a black police vehicle behind him. The vehicle's front and side windows have multiple bullet holes.
Bullet holes are seen in the windshield and passenger window of an RCMP vehicle at the scene of a shooting in Langley, B.C., on July 25. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Sharon Blady, the founder of Speak Up: Mental Health Advocates and Blady & Associates, and a former NDP minister of health for Manitoba. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Early Monday, a gunman roamed the nighttime streets of Langley, B.C., shooting at and ultimately killing people living under-housed

A tragedy for those subjected to this violence, it's also a societal failure for our collective well-being. People were left vulnerable to a rampaging gunman. 

Within the dialogue about the suspected and now-deceased killer, we cannot overlook references to well-known American podcaster Joe Rogan's recent suggestion to shoot homeless people.

We cannot wash our hands of the collective responsibility for failing these victims.- Sharon Blady

Such a hate-filled call to action by Rogan represents a malignant personal and societal illness that remains unchecked. Disgusting as his words are, they are still normalized and tolerated, as he maintains a platform to spread such vitriol. 

And so we leave our fellow citizens to twist in the wind, living unhoused, sometimes with mental health and related neurodivergence diagnoses. Their right to live is valued less than another's right to free speech, regardless of how hate-filled and inciting that speech is. 

Small differences

International borders and differing legal realms exist between Rogan and these shootings. Sadly, the difference in values between these neighbouring societies is too small. We cannot wash our hands of the collective responsibility for failing these victims because of Rogan's geographic location. 

If we had that moral high ground, all Canadians would be appropriately housed and supported in their diagnoses. Sadly, this isn't the case. 

We haven't just failed others. We are failing ourselves and those we love. Most of us have more in common with those who live under-housed than many would comfortably admit. 

Becoming under-housed often starts with social and economic barriers, and sometimes includes living with mental health and neurodivergence challenges. Such challenges are too often undiagnosed or unsupported, leading to stigma-laden misunderstandings and socio-economic isolation, ultimately pushing people in crisis through the gaping holes of our social safety net.

Too many Canadians act shocked by such outcomes or judge the character of those who become unhoused.- Sharon Blady

The slide into housing insecurity is a rapid one. 

All it takes is a diagnosis-related challenge that becomes a human resources file and ends in a pink slip for poor performance. Despite the trend to policy improvements, the reality is workplace culture still tends to stigmatize and dismiss those with mental health and neurodivergence challenges rather than ensuring their equitable access to funded leave and clinical professionals. 

The employee experiencing a heart attack is rarely subject to the organizational paperwork challenges faced by a co-worker experiencing an equally disabling panic attack. Sadly, it is still too easy for employers to terminate workers within the bounds of even the most progressive policies, while exponentially harder to protect yourself while in psychological crisis.   

Too many Canadians act shocked by such outcomes or judge the character of those who become unhoused or traumatized, or acquire behavioural or substance dependencies. 

When we remove people from social and economic participation, we set them up for medical crises and housing insecurity. 

I'm convinced that most Canadians want to distance themselves from Rogan's moral vacancy. To do that, we must come to terms with the ongoing neglect of those who live with mental health and neurodivergence diagnoses.

National strategy needed

We need a significant shift in our collective mindset and the investments required to prevent tragedies like the one in Langley and the thousands of other daily crises that never make the headlines.

We need a national strategy to support diagnoses at every stage of life. 

Start with early universal diagnosis at school entry. Ensure accessible and fully funded clinical, therapeutic and adaptive supports, available from kindergarten to Grade 12 and through post-secondary and vocational training.

We must educate and transform workplaces across all sectors. Every workplace needs to properly understand that lived experience of mental health and neurodivergence diagnoses provides strengths and insights when properly understood and supported. 

We can reduce the wait times that cause escalation and crises with focused investments to train and employ a broader spectrum of mental health professionals within our education, health care, justice and social services systems.

We can prevent market volatility, housing scarcity and housing insecurity by returning to strong social housing investments and strengthening related legislation.

The return on investment for keeping people housed is far better than paying for the consequences of letting anyone become unhoused and vulnerable.

Doing this will result in better outcomes for those of us living with diagnoses and reduce the number of Canadians living unhoused. 

More importantly, it will help create a society where malicious comments are unable to incite murderous acts.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sharon Blady is the founder of Speak Up: Mental Health Advocates and Blady & Associates and a former NDP minister of health for Manitoba. Prior to her time in office, she taught in nursing, social work and Native studies at the University of Manitoba.

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