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Rights + Justice

Criticism of Low-Barrier Shelter 'Superficial': First United

Government moves to phase out church refuge for homeless. Here's their response.

Ric Matthews and Sandra Severs 16 Dec

Rev. Ric Matthews is executive minister and Rev. Sandra Severs is deputy executive minister at First United Church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Recent media coverage and comments by Minister of Housing Rich Coleman and City of Vancouver officials about the situation at the refuge at First United have raised two critical issues which are fundamental to the challenge of solving chronic street homelessness. Both issues have been used to divert attention from where it really belongs.

Comments in a recent Globe and Mail article suggest that up to 40 per cent of the people currently sleeping at First United have housing that is being paid for elsewhere. This number, however, does not have any basis in documented fact, and does not deal with the deeper issues of the neighbourhood. Surveys done in October and November over a three-day period by staff from First United, together with the Carnegie Centre Outreach team, put the actual number somewhere around 20 per cent. If this number sounds high, a few things need to be explained.

BC Housing is not paying twice for anyone at First United. They are not even paying the full costs of sheltering people in our facility. Minister Coleman has consistently announced that HEAT shelters cost around $100 per person each night. As the first place opened under the HEAT program, First United has never received funding remotely close to that amount. For the first three winters it operated as a place of refuge, First United received $24 per person per night. The number of spaces funded was 200. Since April 2011, we have received $40 per person per night.

Again, that is for 200 people. Any additional people, including those in that 20 per cent with housing elsewhere, have been funded by our donor base. We have been subsidizing the province by providing space and services at a fraction of any other shelter provider in Vancouver.

What First United provides

There are genuine reasons for why people don't use the housing allocated to them. It is convenient to point fingers at First United. It is easy to demand we simply send folk who have housing paid for elsewhere back into the streets. It is also very naive. People that are not staying in the housing provided for them have real reasons for doing so. Some housing units are too cockroach- and bedbug-infested. Some are surrounded by neighbouring tenants deep into their addiction and/or mental illness, such that people find First United a safer and less stressful place to be. Some places are just too lonely and frightening for people who are ravaged by anxiety or other demons and are terrified of being alone. Some housing units are enmeshed in scams, where third parties make money out of complex subletting.

We all agree that the government should not pay twice for housing someone. But the real challenge lies in addressing the reason why the housing is not "working," not in ensuring they don't have anywhere else to be. Refusing people entry does not result in them going back to the inappropriate housing that's been paid for. It puts them on the streets. Inclusiveness at First United ensures we can address the real issues. Excluding people means there is no relationship by which we can explore and address the reasons why people are not staying in the housing that has been provided for them. Without the contact -- and in the absence of the housing providers addressing the issue -- these folks are simply pushed into the streets and shadows.

A second issue relates to the increasingly common claim that First United should exclude those who simply want to be there, but don't really need to be there. This is a bogus distinction, based on a superficial understanding of the deep need people have for belonging (and the terror many have of being alone). If housing does not provide a genuine home, people need to find other places where they feel at home. This need is not an easily dismissed "nice to have." It is a very deep, authentic human need. Leaders from the province, city and police have disparagingly said people are going to First United because of the sense of community they find there -- or more crudely, because it's "party central." One doesn't have to be homeless to enjoy the good food, welcoming and supportive atmosphere and program resources of First United. They are open to everyone. We will never break the endless cycle of chronic homelessness if we glibly dismiss the desire for community as a "want" rather than a "need."

The need is about a desperate longing of chronically homeless people for feeling accepted and validated rather than merely tolerated, knowing they truly belong to and are part of a wider circle, and restoring what is broken in their sense of connection with self, family, friends and society.

Homes not houses

We can build as many new housing units as we like, but the people we put in them need to feel at home with sufficient and appropriate support 24 hours a day. Without that, they will continue to cycle through the system. The folk who are chronically homeless are typically the most traumatized, troubled and vulnerable people in our society. The fact that First United is "too welcoming and accepting" is not the problem. The problem is that too often these basic needs are not being met in the housing that has been provided.

The province, city and police have responded to the above concerns by calling for increased screening at First United. The screening is intended to help exclude those who have housing elsewhere and those who "want" rather than "need" to be at First United. This flies in the face of all the points made above. It assumes that housing is the solution to chronic or street homelessness. Housing is indeed a prerequisite for "solving" homelessness. But by itself it is not sufficient. Homelessness is ultimately not about having a house, but about having a home. If we do not get the difference, we will not end homelessness.

We all want to break the cycle of chronic homelessness, stop failing deeply vulnerable people, and stop wasting inordinate sums of taxpayer money. The only way to do that is to commit seriously to an integrated and comprehensive approach to these issues. Simply doing more of the same with greater determination and within the same old government department silos, will not produce the change we need.

We need a sincere commitment to find new and effective strategies via collective wisdom. We can only do this by sitting together around one table, and doing the shared analysis together. By working together to develop creative, out-of-the-box strategies, we can collectively allocate resources and implement daring new initiatives. And in the end, perhaps we will finally serve those who no one seems to want, those who will otherwise continue to cycle through the shelter system of this city.  [Tyee]

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