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"Notes" #39

A number of years ago I volunteered at the lighthouse Mission on Main Street. It was there that I got my first introduction to what homelessness was all about. I spent the better part of the fall and winter serving up meals and coffee, lots of coffee, to a most interesting and diverse group of individuals. To say that I had my eyes opened to a way of life that this privileged white guy had no experience or understanding about, would have been an understatement.

The "Group" would begin to line up outside the mission a good half hour before the doors would swing open. The soup, sandwiches and coffee would have been prepared by volunteers who were quite possibly as diverse as our guests. People filed in politely, making small talk with those around them. I remember meeting a student of mine from my teaching days who was quite open about his predicament-being on the streets-and shared, with no shame, his story. I met one of Winnipeg's top real estate sales persons, who at one point owned several million dollars worth of property-- he lost it all due to his alcoholism. A severely disturbed middle aged man who mumbled incoherently but never took his eyes off the soup pot and always stayed off to the side, had his home under a bridge both summer and winter. I believe the most medically messed up of these homeless individuals were those who sniffed glue-their brains were completely scrambled and they trembled and shook constantly.

Since that experience many years ago I have looked at the homeless through a different lens. I've seen their tents up in the fields and under bridges, the piles of garbage they generate, the Salvation Army coffee truck, the heated bus shacks with 6-10 people pressed together; and I often wondered how many of those people that I saw back in my Mission days are still alive today. The streets, I have been graphically told, can be cold, cruel and dangerous. So who are the homeless, and how did they end up on our streets?

The homeless come in many shapes, sizes and favours with an equal number of reasons why they are on the street. The root causes of homelessness are many: mental illness, poverty, unemployment, high cost of housing and healthcare, family breakup (forced to leave the home suddenly without a plan), abuse (sexual, physical, psychological and senior abuse), addiction, a child welfare system that stops helping at age 18, a decentralized response to the problem by government at all levels, racism, inequality and lack of education, an accident or physical trauma (one paycheque from being on the street),  and insufficient support for immigrants and refugees. I am not sure that getting to the root of these problems can logically lead to a solution. It is overwhelming, the number of reasons why people end up on the street, and many of their problems are beyond our ability to prevent. However, this doesn't mean we give up, but just how can we be helpful to those who have given up on their own life?

In sifting through the research on this topic of homelessness, it seems to me that the high cost of permanent housing has the most profound effect on people and most often leads to their being homeless. If people are to ever get ahead, reunite with their families, they need help with permanent housing. This is something society can help with!

There are between 150,000-300,000 homeless individuals in Canada at any given time. The homeless are transient, many moving in and out of homelessness. Canada has approximately 200,000 permanently homeless people and approximately 50,000 are considered to be the "hidden homeless" (couch surfing with friends, relatives or others because they have nowhere else to live).

On the day I am writing this article, the temperature in Winnipeg hovers in the -30° range and I can't imagine what living on the streets today would be like. Ryan Thorpe in his Free Press column (Jan. 27, 2021) stated, "In Manitoba, 146 people died from exposure from 2004 to 2014, one third of those deaths occurring in urban areas, the majority of them in Winnipeg." It seems even in Winterpeg, homelessness is a year round issue.

I remember 30-40 years ago we had very few visible homeless people during the winter. It seems in those days everybody went to Vancouver. I even heard stories where government money, in Western cities, actually bought bus tickets to Vancouver for their perennially homeless. Homelessness, back then was not as large a problem because we had significantly fewer people on the streets and we had the annual Winnipeg purge--winter.

Today, Winnipeg's homeless are either getting more hardy or are more desperate, you have to be desperate with very little hope for the future to live on our streets in the winter. More resources, research and problem solving are needed on this issue. DR Jan. 30,21

I just noticed in a recent Winnipeg Free Press article the city is doing something new at the Millennium Library, "Creating a space in the library's lobby where at-risk clients will be able to access mental health, addictions and shelter supports, during a two-year pilot project." Great!
(Joyanne Pursaga, Free Press, Jan. 27)

Have you ever wondered about these things:

Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle?
Is it wrong for a vegetarian to eat animal crackers?
Is there an abbreviation for the word abbreviation?
What do they use to ship Styrofoam?
Is it okay to shoot tourists during tourist season?
If honesty is the best policy, then it is this honesty the second best policy?
If a word is misspelled in the dictionary, how will anyone ever know?
(This one is for Miliah) If one synchronized swimmer goes down, do the rest have to drown too?