Manitoba·Opinion

Out of sight, out of mind: A front-line worker's perspective on homelessness

"Significant attention is paid toward homelessness during severe weather, or if someone dies on the streets, or the bus shelters are full, or another encampment is torn down," says Winnipeg community worker Ken St. George. "But the attention is always short-lived. The issues remain."

Between each crisis, governments forget about the needs of the homeless, says Winnipeg community worker

People inside a bus shack in front of the University of Winnipeg during a brutal cold snap in February. The needs of people who are are homeless are only considered in times of crisis, says community worker Ken St. George. (John Einarson/CBC)

Significant attention is paid toward homelessness during severe weather, or if someone dies on the streets, or the bus shelters are full, or another encampment is torn down. 

But the attention is always short-lived. The issues remain. The homeless will once again be forgotten about, as the seasons change.

There are several of us, though, who do not forget and who refuse to look the other way, when homelessness fades from the public eye.

COVID-19 has absolutely exposed the detriment of homelessness, along with its first cousins, addiction and mental health. 

Isolation sites were created and were/are necessary. Shelter spaces were expanded to accommodate social distancing. We know this, for the government can often be seen patting each other's backs for a job well done. 

The pandemic response by the non-profit sector has been outstanding, and that sector deserves a standing ovation for its tireless efforts. I know the efforts put forth, for I was there during the first wave, as a lead at an isolation site. 

But my time there was short; I could not digest accepting vulnerable individuals into furnished housing, only to release them days later back into homelessness. It was trying and it defeated me as a caregiver, knowing I was responsible for stripping these people of their primary social determinant of health — housing. 

It felt completely wrong and unethical, despite the public health concerns surrounding us. 

Past mistakes are catching up. No more time for hesitancies or inaction.- Ken St. George

Months later, as an outreach team lead, I rediscovered the peril of homelessness and addiction first-hand. Many faces were recognizable, for they were at one time housed under my care. 

One was an old friend I had lost touch with 20 years ago. Seeing him living on a riverbank, addicted to methamphetamine, brought tears to my eyes. 

Perspective must change; moral and fiscal responsibility must be located. Band-Aid solutions lead to exacerbated social concerns, combined with rising costs. 

As a nurse, I know that repeatedly putting a Band-Aid on a deep, cutting wound, without a full assessment, leads to infection, sepsis and death. The homelessness issue is similar, and the response has been nothing short of disappointing.

So, I will help the decision makers — who likely lead a life far away from the vulnerable and marginalized — by providing simple follow-through steps to improve outcomes in the battle against homelessness.

Housing

This current government's insistence on following the guidelines of KPMG consulting has led to an attempt to privatize Manitoba's social housing stock since they took office. 

The foundation of this plan has already proven disastrous in other nations. Dozens of public/affordable housing complexes have been sold off, while hundreds of units remain vacant.

It's time to invest. The lanes are clear to do a U-turn on this regressive plan. Stop stripping the opportunity for housing for those struggling. Adjust your narrative, quickly.

Alternative housing

Not everyone is prepared to simply walk into a housing unit, directly off the street, even if one is available. There are countless factors to consider, especially if a homeless individual has endured a life of trauma and has become addicted to a substance, in order to feel normal and reduce their pain. 

The overrepresentation of Indigenous persons in homelessness is, I believe, a direct result of colonialism. And our response to this lays part of the foundation to reconciliation. 

Yet the response has been underwhelming.

The need for low-barrier housing, supportive and transitional housing, with slower medical models and cultural sensitivities is more imperative now than ever.

Past mistakes are catching up. No more time for hesitancies or inaction. 

Addiction

Outlined in the medical profession as a disease since the 1990s, addiction is a huge determinant of homelessness statistics, and overwhelmingly lacks resources and fiscal support. Addiction, the disease, requires full support and government funding to the non-profit sector, and needs to be viewed with scrutiny to detail like other killer diseases, such as cancer.

Expand detox and emergency rooms for addiction, NOW! A three-month wait for a bed during the first crucial steps of recovery is taking lives.

Fully support medical models that are currently working, but have limited expansion capacity due to fluctuating, unpredictable and often absent core funding. 

Government has the capacity, when in unison, to create major improvements for our vulnerable, and have the infrastructure in place through the non-profit sector to implement. Now is the time for the missing piece to be enacted. There must be the political will to do more of the right thing in a substantial and sustainable manner. 

The public wants this. The vulnerable need it.


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken has dedicated most of his 17 year nursing career to serving Winnipeg's most vulnerable populations within the city core. In recent years, he's also been involved with the non-profit sector in clinical and team leadership roles, and has created a nursing-led housing initiative, now under review.

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