Thursday, July 16, 2009

Homelessness - The Root Cause - Part 2

What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part 2
Posted on July 14, 2009 by missionlog - This is a re-post of my missionlog article
Read - What do you think is the root cause of homelessness? Part I



See it - by canayjun / MrPicassohead

In Part I of the series, I shared the results of informal surveys of volunteers over the last few years of what people think is the root cause of homelessness. It’s important to address this issue. Much has already been written and studied on how to help the homeless, but I strongly believe we have still missed the mark. To define this is critical in alleviating homelessness. (We still need your input and comments here too)


…if we are not targeting the root cause of the problem, then homelessness will only worsen. It’s like finding a cure for a disease. Homelessness is a plague on our society. Instead of just treating symptoms we need to find a cure for those who are already homeless and we need to protect the entire population from the risk of being exposed to homelessness.


I’ve already listed what most people think are the causes -

  • Alcohol and drug abuse, addictions
  • Loss of a job, the economy, bankruptcy
  • Family problems and break-ups
  • Lack of education – not being qualified for well paying job
  • Poor judgment, making bad choices and laziness
  • Choice – some people just choose to be homeless
  • Mental illness
  • Physical disability
  • Abuse in the home – youth runaways
  • Violence against women

- and that most people would target addictions and family dysfunctions when asked to choose the top reasons. My colleague Steve, a member of the Sanctuary community in Toronto and outreach worker with the Center for Student Missions, himself formerly homeless, targets job loss as the number one reason. He predicts a large upswing in the numbers of homeless in a few months due to the current recession when EI and layoff / severance benefits run out. Some comments, here and on Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, have had good suggestions to give other factors more priority, such as -

  • Mental health issues
  • Veterans suffering PTSD
  • Gender inequality
  • Bias regarding sexual orientation
  • Low Minimum wages
As I explain to our volunteers after a night out serving the homeless on the streets where they live – all of these answers fall short of the mark. None of these factors, in themselves, cause homelessness. None of them identify the root cause of homelessness. I am not denying that all of the homeless people I know have faced many of these challenges in their lives. I’m merely pointing out that these factors are just symptoms of our human condition in the society we have created. Many of them terrible, painful and de-humanizing, but just characteristics of modern life nonetheless. Most homeless programs address some combination of these issues. Most core funding to solve homelessness is centered around a model of personal healing for individuals who are victims of those listed issues.

I’m going to use two examples to illustrate my point:
  • Alcoholism and victims of abuse.
Most people see the huge prevalence of alcohol abuse on the streets by homeless people as an indication that it is the addiction of that person that is the main contributor to their homelessness. However, not every alcoholic is homeless or becomes homeless in the course of their struggles with the addiction. Another of society’s plagues, the percentage of adult North Americans who are alcoholics is difficult to determine – different studies range from 5% to 30%. Much alcoholism goes undiagnosed and there is an overlap between habits of people who abuse alcohol and those who are dependant on alcohol (addicted). It’s estimated less than 25% of people seek treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction. But if we used the figure of 5% as people who are dependant on alcohol and applied that to the adult population of Toronto [1,879,000 adults aged 25 to 64, census 2006], we would arrive at a number of almost 94,000 people suffering from alcohol addiction in the GTA. Even if we assume that about 25% of those people were actively seeking treatment, the remaining 75,000 people are not all homeless (although many may be at risk of becoming homeless due to secondary factors such as job loss, family dysfunction and secondary medical disabilities).

The total number of homeless in Toronto has been estimated to be between 40-50,000 (including the under-housed) and the majority of those people are not alcohol abusers or addicts. The street population – that is those who are absolutely without shelter and/or living in overnight emergency shelters has been pegged at approximately 5,000 while those living outside roughly number only from 500 to 1,000. Again, not all of those people are alcoholics. In my experience from one third to half of the homeless I serve on the street have an alcohol abuse problem and it often dates to the period after they became homeless. At best, based on a total local number of 94,000 alcoholics, that means less than three percent of the street homeless are there as a result of alcoholism. So you can see that alcoholism is not a root cause, merely a significant contributing factor. [ I realize there are challenges in treating statistics in this manner, as not all of the homeless in Toronto originate from Toronto, still I believe the disparity is significant]


My next example is of victims of abuse - specifically youth:

It is said that nearly one in five young people – 19 and under – will be victims of physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse in their lifetimes – a terrible statistic (some reports are much higher). In the Toronto census area there are 679,960 youth from the ages of 10 to 19 years of age. Using that one in five ratio means that there is a potential toll of abuse being faced by about 135,000 youth in the Toronto GTA. The CBC’s Fifth Estate has reported (2004) that on any given night there are between 1,500 to 2,000 homeless youth in Toronto. I know from experience that many of those street homeless youth are victims of abuse. You don’t want to hear what I have heard from them, or see the brokenness that I have witnessed in their young lives. The total numbers however reflect that only a minority percentage become homeless. Once again abuse is probably not the root cause of homelessness.

A similar statistical review of the other identified issues such as mental health challenges, family break-ups, job loss, economic downturn would show the same results. All of those issues are faced by the the entire population at some point. Everyone in our society encounters serious crisis situations in their lives and yet it is a relatively small percentage of the population who actually experience homelessness. Even if there are, as some estimates claim, fifty thousand homeless in the GTA, that only represents about 1% of our total population (Toronto Census Metropolitan Area 5,113,149 – 2006 StatsCan).

So what is the root cause of homelessness?

I have to say that I am not sure anymore as a result of starting this whole process. I know what I say to our volunteers. I know what other experts and poverty relief organizations are trying to get the public to hear. I know what at least one person who commented on the last post already suspects (thanks Jayne from Interfaith Sanctuary Housing Services).

The root cause of homelessness is said to be-

the lack of affordable housing.





I tell all my Project417 volunteer groups that the root cause is the lack of accessible, safe and affordable housing. Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and homelessness advocate for over twenty years is a recipient of the Atkinson Economic Justice Award. She says in her most recent newsletter

… despite my efforts and the efforts of a great many others, homelessness in Canada remains a very real disaster and as this recession unfolds, the disaster is only going to grow with no real end in sight. As I have said many times before, Canada desperately needs a National Housing Program and we need it now!
The Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida lists affordable housing and loss of a job as the primary causes of homelessness. The National [U.S.] Alliance to End Homelessness list affordable housing and permanent supportive housing as a key step in their plan to eliminate homelessness. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee targets affordable housing funding with their Housing Not War and 1% Solution campaign. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty demands “decent, affordable, accessible housing for all”.

The right to housing is a basic human right defined by the United Nations, ratified and signed by Canada and most other Western nations. And yet, it is the lack of affordable housing which most suspect to be the leading contributor to homelessness in every town and city in North America where it exists. Until recently I believed the same but I feel we have not yet identified the root cause of homelessness.

I need your comments. Post them here. Share this on Facebook, Digg, Reddit and Twitter with the twitter hashtag #whyhomeless and twitter reply to @canayjun so I can see the tweets. Re-post this blog on your own website and link back here. The permalink(to my original) is -

http://missionlog.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/what-do-you-think-is-the-root-cause-of-homelessness-part-2

I will explore this further in the next post because I suspect now that even the issue of affordable housing does not sufficiently capture the underlying “root” cause of homelessness. I feel the solution is within our grasp. Join the discussion… social networking and the internet offer us the ability to establish a wide ranging and influential grassroots movement to change the way we view and treat homelessness. BE the change…

Thank-you

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canayjun

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