Homelessness is a widely misunderstood and stigmatized concept.
Most understand homelessness to be unkempt people, often men, living on the street.
The broader and more factual way to describe homelessness is ‘anyone without a home.’ Anyone with lack of stability, privacy, safety, and identity of place to call home, can be classified as homeless.
The homeless are…
People living on the street
People living in shelters
People temporarily without shelter
And people who are precariously housed, or at risk of becoming homeless
The homeless male stereotype does in fact comprise the largest share of the homeless, however more and more we are seeing families, women and children, youth, and persons with mental illness struggling to find and afford shelter.
Homelessness is increasing. This can be due to system causes, such as increasing poverty, housing affordability, limited social housing programs, poor discharge planning from institutions, and limited community support services. Increased homelessness can also be caused by individual causes, such as inadequate income, unemployment, family breakdown, family violence, physical and mental health issues, and substance abuse problems.
Obviously, homelessness is not as simple as it seems. It is not just ‘that guy with the beard’ begging on the corner who is too lazy to get help. It is very often not the result of personal failures. Rather, outside factors can force literally anyone, any type of person, into varying degrees of homelessness. Without the proper education and system opportunities, these homeless people may resort to difficult methods to keep their income afloat in order to survive, such as begging, prostitution, stealing, and illegal sales. Many people who resort to these methods do not wish to continue, but feel they have no other choice.
This is why pointing the finger at the homeless is ignorant, and we should instead be looking at the bigger picture – how can the city system improve as a whole to reduce the likelihood of people finding themselves in a homeless state, to provide awareness to the general public about homelessness, and to provide safety nets for those who are forced into homelessness?
For one, housing costs continue to rise, making housing incredibly difficult to afford to begin with. This is where affordable housing comes in – non-profit or co-operative housing communities where some or all of the rents are subsidized (as defined by the City of Toronto). This means that households pay a fraction of the price for living in a given unit, and affordable housing along with government assistance accounts for the rest. The rent price for affordable housing is geared towards the resident’s income in order to make it affordable on a case-by-case scenario.
Images taken from powerful affordable housing campaign in Toronto
Historically, in Canada, the availability of affordable housing has steadily declined, specifically in Vancouver and Toronto. This decline has occurred because affordable housing is a financial challenge – both during its implementation and throughout its maintained life. There are some poster-childs of affordable housing that have dealt the right cards at the right times and [have debatably] stood the test of time (Regent Park), however it is currently a difficult task to gather any support for new affordable housing in Ontario. Affordable housing is also wrongly and negatively stigmatized by outsiders, making it a real challenge to propose financial and social solutions such as social mix developments, which aim to mix ethnicities, demographics, incomes and housing types harmoniously in order to create a stronger community that prevents social exclusion and polarization.
With Toronto’s affordable housing regulations, the City is trying to preserve what affordable housing currently exists. The regulations essentially tell developers that they can implement their proposed design on affordable housing land, as long as they replace the affordable housing units and give tenants a legal right of return. This, however, does not solve displacement and identity issues, which can become root causes of homelessness to begin with.
It is my hope that homelessness can become less stigmatized, because I believe that with the proper education, communities and systems can better understand how to handle it. Homelessness is an unfortunate reality – something that we see in every city, something that will happen. But are we equipped to handle it? Are we equipped to face the homeless as human beings with individual stories? Are we equipped to treat the homeless with the same respect that any other person would receive? Are we ready to raise awareness about homelessness causes, and topics such as where the homeless can comfortably get shelter and receive guidance?
What type of first steps do you think would help the homelessness case in your region?