With people starting to campaign for the municipal election, I am sure we are going to hear a lot about the problems in the downtown core, about the street people and the homeless.
We are also bound to hear several proposed solutions to these problems. Despite all the time, talk and debate, I do see a few fundamental questions that seem to get ignored or lost in the shuffle.
To start with, just how many people are homeless? This is a major problem for not just Yellowknife but for the entire country. Despite this, when you try to get some figures for the number of people involved it seems that no one is adequately tracking it. It is hard to even get estimates. A report I read claimed that in 2013 in Canada there were 30,000 homeless people on any given night, 200,000 had experienced homelessness for at least one night that year and between 2008 and 2013, 1.3 million Canadians had been homeless.
If those number confuse you, believe me you are not alone. So, if we are going to talk about homelessness and street people, we need a whole lot better way of tracking them, so that we know the size, scale and severity of the problem. In Yellowknife, how many people sleep outside on any given night, either under buildings or in little bush camps. How many stay in the homeless shelters or under a roof somewhere that is not their home? How many people couch surf or stay with friends or family going from one place to another? How many people live in overcrowded housing? How many people, men, women and children have a place to live, but live below the poverty line?
True, city officials and volunteers did conclude that 139 people in the city were homeless using a point-in-time homeless count in 2015 but I am sure they were way off the mark. And there was another count conducted this past April, but I believe the true figures are much higher.
Homelessness impacts society and it should be addressed. Also, while people may come up with some solutions to this problem like housing first or building more shelters, that doesn’t address the problem of why so many people can’t afford or lack housing, don’t have or can’t find a job and live below the poverty line.
Politicians and bureaucrats don’t like to address those fundamental problems because often their rules and regulation, although well-intentioned, help to create the problem in the first place. When I first came to Yellowknife there were some street people who chipped sidewalks or did odd jobs for a little money. They may on occasion have drunk too much or spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around the post office, but they weren’t homeless. Most had shacks scattered about and there were even a few out at the dump. They didn’t own the land, but they at least had a roof over their heads and a place they could call their own. The city didn’t like the “squatters” so it bulldozed their places and thus helped create the homeless problem. Nowhere in the city plan can a person get an undeveloped lot to build their own shack on. The city has no plans for tiny houses, rural houses, do it yourself houses or an affordable place where people can get a start.
Personally, I would much rather live in a tent or cabin without any amenities save a wood stove than stay in a homeless shelter or live in an apartment building full of people doing drugs and drinking. So – I would wager – would many of the homeless people.
Also, all the rules about jobs and labour put some people out of work or keep them from working. So some of the root causes need to be addressed or the situations facing jobless and homeless people living below the poverty line will just get worse and worse and worse. Something worth thinking about.
One could argue that homelessness and poverty are the symptoms of bigger problems that need to be addressed and that would involve a fundamental shift in our thinking. It will be interesting to hear what the candidates in this election propose.