Pearson: It’s beneath a caring community to tolerate homelessness

How is it that in a modern cosmopolitan city of some 400,000 people, and with hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space, that it’s so hard to find room for 200 homeless Londoners “living rough” on riverbanks and in forests?

Before exploring this present scenario, it’s important to note homelessness is a global issue, in cities large and small. According to a 2019 United Nations report, about 150 million people (two per cent of the world’s population) are homeless. It gets worse. About 1.6 billion people (20 per cent of the global population) lack adequate housing.

In all of this, Canada ranks fourth in the developed world for the number of homeless — something of a blight on our global reputation. It is estimated that some 35,000 experience homelessness on a daily basis, and at least 235,000 of our citizens are homeless in any given year.

The housing and homeless crisis didn’t just materialize, but resulted from three decades of poor policy decisions by successive provincial and federal governments. Cities are left to deal with the damage, having few tools at their disposal to cope with the human or economic costs.

The word “homeless” only came into common use in the 1980s, but is now part of the vocabulary of every Canadian community, more as a direct challenge than a definition. London has watched its numbers rise steadily over the years, regardless of economic health or the government in power. We don’t have enough shelters or affordable housing spaces, and agencies dealing with the homeless are stretched to the limit.

The need is driven by the understanding that, according to recent studies, between 23 and 67 per cent of homeless citizens report having a mental illness. Portions of the Canadian population grow increasingly vulnerable to homelessness. These include women with children trying to flee abuse, single men, Indigenous people, those with addictions, and others cut off from family and family supports.

The recent London Free Press series on the condition of the homeless surviving in the more remote regions of the city has brought increased attention to the 200+ individuals now working out how to survive as winter approaches. London Cares, the group designated by the city to help with a response, is taxed to the limit for resources and funds, a state further complicated by COVID 19.

Efforts have been underway between the City of London, London Cares and a number of outreach groups to get needed supplies, because it’s clear only a collaborative response can insure effective oversight. As one formerly homeless volunteer for the 519 Pursuit group notes: “By talking with our friends on a daily basis, we can truly understand what is needed and do our best to get it to them as quickly as possible.”

That’s what motivates the people at London Cares and those groups seeking to reach out and provide care and companionship in those places where they shelter. While London Cares works to find housing and shelter for London’s homeless population, outreach groups like 519 Pursuit not only see to the needs of these isolated individuals, but provide immediate feedback to decision-makers.

Yet this feels like the first episode of Game of Thrones, in which the fearful warning is uttered: “Winter is coming.” We all know it and Londoners are left wondering if suitable and respectful places will be found to shelter those living on the edge of our community. Faith groups have offered space in their structures, only to retreat as  insurance liabilities and strict civic standards designed for a less urgent time hinder their opportunity to serve.

“Home is where you go when you run out of homes,” wrote celebrated author John le Carré, and right now, too many of our fellow citizens are making do under roofs of plastic, cardboard, or tree branches despite all that empty space in the structures of this city. It doesn’t make sense. It defies logic. Plans by the city’s Homeless Prevention folks are imminent. They couldn’t come a moment too soon, as it’s beneath a caring community to tolerate the blight any longer.

Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre.

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