Friday, May 7, 2021
This was the first time in 10 years that I did not recognize my community. It would be unfair to say it wasn’t always there, but rather, I haven’t encountered it to this degree. Perhaps it was the stressors of the pandemic, the threat of livelihoods or businesses being lost. Perhaps it was the fact people were paying more attention to their community but really, the reason why is irrelevant.
In recent weeks, I have questioned if our community has shown its true colours and wonder if they have always been masked behind fictionalized social media posts boasting to all how great we are?
Many in the social sector have been questioning this since MPC tabled the permit application for the Emergency Day Shelter on April 7. For the record, 435 North Railway Street is a permitted use, meaning its use is not subject to special review and approval by local government. The former Champions’ Centre has provided support to vulnerable populations since 2006. Those are the facts.
So why is the thought of homeless people walking down the street and finding connection such a concern? The easy answer is the idea of homelessness only matters to people when it impacts them directly. In another area or another city, that is someone else’s problem. Just because you do not see it, does not mean it does not exist, it only means that your exposure is minimal.
Being homeless is not the issue at hand, the discriminatory and archaic thinking is what should be front and centre. We have arrived at a point where some are of the opinion those who do not have a home to call their own do not have the right to walk down the street together, congregate outside a building, share a smoke, connect with friends through conversation all because of what … because they do not fit what our community deems acceptable.
When I hear about those who are seen as a nuisance in community, who are sleeping rough, who exhibit signs of severe mental health, or those in active addiction, I want you to know, I know who they are. Those of us in the profession have supported them in some capacity over the years. The behaviours can be alarming and scary, even for us. All the systems involved could provide data on the number of interactions, attempts at housing, and recovery. You may be shocked at the amount of time, energy, and compassion that goes into each person we collectively serve. We do not give up on people, even if they have given up on themselves.
We can scream about rights and injustices all over social media when the real injustice is in our backyard. Who is really standing up, working within the system and towards change? What is needed is compassion for those still experiencing homelessness. They need people to stand up with them because they have been silenced. They need people to understand a lack of housing is not their defining attribute.
The relocation of the emergency daytime shelter has renewed conversation around homelessness, but let’s talk about the facts, not your preconceived ideas about the homeless population that has riled everyone up from the business community to city hall.
At first, I was frustrated over the events of the past few weeks. Not that it was happening, but at the ignorance of how the underlying issues were being portrayed. There was and is an assumption that those who are homeless are also criminals, and those who are homeless have addictions or mental health issues.
Fifteen people are currently experiencing homelessness or sleeping rough in this community. That is a fact. This number does fluctuate, depending on who is accessing shelter and/or passing through the community. 157 unique people accessed the emergency shelter at some point in 2020, 147 of those were new to the system. Daily shelter utilization is publicly available on the Government of Alberta website ( https://open.alberta.ca/opendata/funded-emergency-shelters-daily-occupancy-ab).
The streets of downtown are not plagued by gangs of homeless people wandering from place to place, congregating in front of businesses, deterring customers from entering, harassing staff and destroying property. Walk downtown, relish in its historical charm and open yourself up to see the person and not stigma.
The social sector has also experienced the discrimination of some businesses and community members. In the past couple days two complaints have been brought forward about those accessing the daytime shelter. The first about a person leaving the new location to enter a vehicle and “shoot up drugs”. It was the supervisor on duty who went out to her vehicle, not to shoot up, but to retrieve PPE for staff. The second was a complaint of a “Native” walking down the street in front of the businesses. The Executive Director of McMan eloquently talked about inclusive hiring practices, and that this individual was an Indigenous staff member. So, now we have a staff member shooting up and another one apparently not allowed to walk on the street because they are Indigenous?
Shame on us. I think there are other things that might need a bit more attention than the location of an emergency daytime shelter.
That is not to say that criminal activity and harassment does not occur. It does. Saying it is directly associated with someone’s housing status is inaccurate. If criminal activity and violence is the issue at hand, let us talk about that. We have a saying in the homeless-serving sector that may help illustrate this point better: If I am having a cardiac event, please don’t call my gynaecologist first.
The fear of crime is natural, and it exists all over this city. It is not isolated to only where the vulnerable population are. The city has ample information available on crime hotspots and commissioned a longitudinal study on crime and the perception of crime in the downtown. I encourage you to ask about the report and to look at the comparative data (pre-COVID and daytime shelter versus current) over the years.
We will take responsibility for people accessing our services when this rule applies to every other social service, business, and government service. You are asking something of us that you would never demand of yourselves. It is here where the seeds of discrimination are growing. If you need to mitigate the actions of some and not others solely based on economic stability and a roof, you are practicing blatant discrimination.
In the coming months, I encourage you to participate in the number of learning opportunities being offered to help provide context about homelessness in Medicine Hat and the services that exist to help. You can learn about our work at home, and on the national front. It is evident that our efforts to end homelessness have been very successful, but the effort to educate the community is where we need to invest our energy.
For the record, I think our community is amazing and a beacon of hope.
Jaime Rogers, Manager, Homeless & Housing Development Dept., MH Community Housing Society