When is Homelessness Acceptable?

It seems we often place value judgments on the homeless and disenfranchised in our community. We decide, maybe without realizing it, that it is somehow OK for addicted or mentally ill individuals to be homeless.

It is OK for those of a different race or religion, for those who are lazy or for people who have become homeless as a consequence of their own bad judgment.

When homelessness affects a person or group of people who don’t think the way we do or who do not accept our values, we tend to allow them to fall through the holes in the social safety net. We often only provide assistance to those who agree with us.

Currently in Kelowna there is quite a debate going on over a proposed housing project on St. Paul St. This debate revolves around a couple of issues which really beg the question – when is homelessness acceptable?

First, there is the attitude of many who say they do not want this sort of project existing in their neighbourhood. Many people do not relish the idea of inviting a group of street people to move in next door.

This fear is reminiscent of why the old psychiatric ‘asylums’ were always located on the outskirts of town where patients were out of sight and mind of the general population. In these cases, patients were kept on the hospital premises at all times, even working in institution run farms to keep them occupied and out of the way.

The reality is that homeless people are part of our community and we need to find ways to help them without banishing them from the city. Usually, homelessness occurs for a variety of reasons for which we all share some responsibility. Life is not fair and we do not all get the pay or the opportunities we deserve. It is plain ignorance to say that the less fortunate deserve their plight. In fact, we often treat our animals with more dignity and respect than we do these other human beings.

In my opinion, homelessness is only acceptable in the very rare cases where mentally competent individuals have chosen it as a lifestyle in the face of minimally restrictive alternatives. Probably less than one per cent of our homeless population would fit this definition.

Second in the St. Paul Street development debates is the question of abstinence from drugs and alcohol. There are a variety of ways to run this sort of housing – some require abstinence and exist for the purpose of assisting individuals through addictions and others operate under a harm reduction model, which encourages healthy choices but does not necessarily enforce abstinence.

Although addiction is a disease and an area where many homeless individuals need help, it does not follow that we should only help those who are willing or able to be abstinent. We should not allow a fellow human being to continue living on the streets simply because he or she is not able to beat an addiction.

If we say as a community that homelessness is not acceptable, we will have to find solutions to it. There will have to be more than one solution and no one project will suit every individual. Some will embrace abstinence and thrive, while others may not. Some will want to live in city centres, and again others likely will not. We must start somewhere, but it would be naïve indeed to believe that one solution will meet the needs of all homeless individuals.

In the same way, there is not one solution that will please all individuals in a given neighbourhood. As a community we will have to make some compromises – if everyone says “not in my neighbourhood”, there will be no solution. We need to continue the consultation process and provide opportunities for discussion, but in the end a decision needs to be made and it will not please everyone.


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