Homelessness at home

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As housing costs rise and the rental market shrinks, concerned citizens seek solutions for Regina’s homeless

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

While mayors and other municipal leaders from across Canada were gathering in Regina to talk shop about infrastructure on Wednesday, Jan. 26, community members from across the city gathered in the German Club’s upstairs hall to discuss another local concern – the problem of homelessness.

The panel-led discussion, focused on solutions to the urban homelessness problem, was the result of a collaboration between the local Urban Aboriginal Strategy (UAS) chapter, a national project that operates under the purview of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, and a number of other community groups. While the panel’s five members – Rob Deglau of the North Central Community Association, Lisa Workman of the Four Directions Health Centre, Rob Byers of Namerind Housing, University of Regina justice studies professor Dr. Hirsh Greenberg, and Urban Aboriginal Strategy’s Susan Birley – each represented a different community organization concerned with issues of homelessness, members of other organizations such as Carmichael Outreach and the Rainbow Youth Centre were also in attendance.

Members of the general public were in attendance as well, including Warren McCall, the member of the Legislative Assembly for Regina Elphinstone-Centre. U of R social work student Kara Poier, who volunteers at Carmichael Outreach, attended the panel because it dealt with issues all too common in her field of study.

“It’s advocacy,” Poier said. “We talk about that a lot in social work classes.”

The event was the third in a series of four public forums on the issue of urban homelessness in Regina. Host Cora Sellers pointed out that many solutions had already been proposed at previous sessions. As a result, many panelists focused more on why existing solutions and proven strategies weren’t being put into action.

Greenberg, the first panelist to speak, pointed to reports from New York and Winnipeg on the issue of homelessness. The reports both point to one conclusion – prevention of homelessness by providing more affordable housing costs less than emergency responses. Winnipeg’s 2009 report, “Tip of the Iceberg”, says plainly that “taxpayers investing in affordable housing would reduce spending on health care, social service and policing costs.”

But the problem, according to Greenberg, is that societal attitudes toward the problem of homelessness do not reflect these statistics. He called on the municipal government to lead the charge in changing these attitudes.

“… In most municipalities that have success [in fighting homelessness], the city, the municipalities have taken leadership roles,” Greenberg said. “It’s not that they’ve funded all the housing; leadership doesn’t equal financial commitment. But leadership is important for the municipality because it’s about civic engagement.”

The panelists seemed to agree that what was needed was, first and foremost, that civic engagement, on both a municipal and individual level. Though the panelists collectively suggested a number of possible actions to address the lack of affordable housing, such as using old rail containers as temporary housing units, the problem they seemed to address isn’t a lack of solutions – it’s a lack of attention and a lack of action.

“From a community perspective, we have put forth quite a few things, but have yet to look at the political will to it,” Delgau said. “Homelessness is just a byproduct of some bad business decisions that governments have been doing for the last years. And the reality is, poor people don’t make as much noise as business lobby groups.”

The panel discussion was followed by a question-and-answer period, although several speakers took to the microphone to provide comment rather than ask direct questions. Some, like Daniel Johnson, were less than pleased with the committee’s makeup and approach; Johnson expressed dissatisfaction with what he saw as a gentrifying attitude on the part of the panel.

“The solution is always another set of problems,” Johnson said later. “Because the problem is we have a government who makes their living from problems, not from solutions.”

Greenberg, too, sees problems with the government’s approach; however, he said in an interview after the session, those problems also have their roots in a larger problem of attitude – an attitude of compartmentalization rather than a holistic, collaborative approach to dealing with homelessness. And that’s why this series of discussions is necessary.

“My hope [for these discussions] is that there’s enough common ground to say, ‘We don’t have to argue with each other about wanting to solve the problem, or who’s responsible”’ he said. “That there’s enough common ground to say, ‘Yeah, if there’s homelessness in our province and in our communities, we all have some level of responsibility and accountability for it.’”

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