Inner City Diary
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The homeless aren't asking for social workers...
September 7, 2003
Recently I was asked, “What's the number one need of the homeless in Winnipeg?”

Ponder your answer while I share mine.

I replied very directly, “A place to live.”

The person queried, “But what about services? Don't the homeless need more services?”

Here's what I figure. There are several types of homelessness in Winnipeg.

There is some of what folks call “absolute homelessness.” There are some people who have no place to sleep but the streets, under bridges, in doorways, etc..

Some are there because they're running from the law or from some other real or imagined threat. Some because of mental illness. Some have a short or long-term aversion to being boxed in by four walls and a ceiling. Some have been rejected by welfare, or are in the process of waiting for social assistance, and have no money to pay rent. Sometimes, shelters are full.

Some folk are considered “un-houseable” by most landlords. Not enough cash, stink too bad, look too scary, act too bizarre, have a horrific track record. Consequently, they're not deemed an acceptable risk by most landlords who care about their buildings and other tenants.

There isn't lots of “absolute homelessness” in Winnipeg. Not many survive long sleeping on the minus 40 streets of Winterpeg. And every winter - some lose life or limbs to winter's heartless chill.

So people adapt. Most are able to find a “place,” but still don't have a home.

I've learned there's a big difference between asking someone where they “live” and asking them where they're “staying.”

If you live somewhere, you have a home, a residence, a fixed address. If you're just “staying” somewhere, you don't even take time to memorize the address. You crash there til someone makes you leave.

This is what some workers call “relative homelessness.” Some folk live in dives with several others because they can't afford a place of their own.

The welfare shelter allowance for a single person is unrealistic. There are not many safe, healthy options for $271 (including all utilities) for a bachelor or one-bedroom apartment. Buildings downtown are old, displaying many signs of wear and scabbed-over scars of abuse.

So some folks continually cycle through friends and relatives to find a place to sleep until they have to move on. Are they “absolutely homeless”? No. Are they “relatively homeless” if they have no fixed address? I figure so.

Back to the question - “What's the number one need of the homeless in Winnipeg?”

I pondered the supplementary question about services, but still feel the number one need of people who are homeless is a safe place to live.

I know people need services. Some wrestle unsuccessfully with mental illness. Some struggle with the law, and others battle addictions. They all need some services.

But right now, I figure there are more services than places to live. There are thousands of people already paid 30 to 80 thousand a year to "serve" the poor.

We already have enough "service providers" helping the homeless look for places that don't exist or they can't afford. We already have enough workers handing out pretty brochures people can't read and providing referrals to other agencies which provide additional referrals to more agencies. At least everyone's busy. Service providers are busy talking and the homeless are busy getting to their next conversation.

Enter the Federal government. They established a multi-million dollar fund and invited agencies to utilize monies to alleviate absolute and relative homelessness. They’ve committed almost 20 million dollars in Winnipeg alone in the past three years. Now they've renewed the program, with almost as much funding again.

Now the job is up to the agencies and ”helpers of the homeless” in Winnipeg.

I might get into trouble for saying this, but I figured the money was to create housing for the homeless. Not as a job creation project for more social workers. What we need most is housing for the homeless.

Our church has utilized some of the funding to renovate derelict buildings, providing scores of units. But as many as we have renovated, we still receive many more requests than we can fill – from social workers, agencies, and most importantly, from people desperate for a safe place to live.

And the interesting thing is – they’re all asking for the same thing. A place to live. Not one person of the hundreds that have called in the past year has asked me for another social worker or another “resource” centre.

It’s important that the proposals of Winnipeg’s agencies reflect and respect the number one need of the homeless.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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