Homelessness awareness week

As you may have already heard, homelessness awareness week is coming up and a group of people from various local businesses will be spending the night sleeping outside to help raise awareness of our city's homeless and their plight.

Although it is only one night and the participants will get a hot breakfast in the morning, this is a good exercise in awareness as most of us have little or no idea what it feels like to sleep outside except in a campground.

But for the thousands of homeless people in BC, finding shelter from the elements is a struggle every day of the year.

As I have mentioned in a past column on poverty and homelessness, such unstable life circumstances can be very detrimental to the mental health of those affected.

Not only can an unstable economic situation cause existing mental illness to worse, but extremely stressful life circumstances can trigger mental illness in susceptible individuals.

A large percentage of Canada's homeless suffer from some form of mental illness or substance abuse problems, which can make life even more stressful or dangerous. in fact, a recent survey suggested that 10% of all people using shelters experience both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem.

Many people believe that the homeless on our streets are there by choice - they are thought to be lazy freeloaders by some. A recent castanet poll of Okanagan residents also suggested that a large number of people simply don't care about the local homeless.

Of just over 1,200 individuals who responded, one third said they didn't care. Although world events teach us daily about humanity's lack of concern, it still amazes me to learn that so many people in our own community would actually say they don't care about the homeless situation.

Even from a completely selfish perspective (as opposed to humanitarian considerations), homelessness affects everyone. The homeless cost the system money for health care and law enforcement, they are often thought of as a blight on our downtown area and they may be involved in petty crime.

Often, when a person has little money and few possessions to begin with, one simple choice (such as choosing to keep a beloved pet) can set off a chain reaction that leads to homelessness or extreme poverty.

I recently met an unfortunate person for whom this was the case. The decision to keep his dog made it impossible to find a place to live at a price he could afford and he ended up on the street where his situation quickly went from bad to worse.

Other times, less controllable circumstances such as a raise in rent, an unplanned medical bill or even a traffic ticket can push a person over the edge into homelessness.

According to a report on homelessness put out by the provincial government, a lack of affordable housing is a key factor contributing to homelessness in our province.

Approximately 10,500 individuals in BC alone are on waiting lists for affordable housing and an additional 2,600 individuals with mental illnesses or disability are waiting for supportive housing with an average wait of four years before placement.

This lack of adequate housing is also contributing to high costs in health care, social services and the criminal justice system. People without safe and affordable shelter have more health problems and are more likely to become involved in criminal activity than the general population.

Our provincial government concedes that putting resources in place now such as more affordable housing will actually cost less than the current burden of increased, health social and justice costs.

Current prevention services, specialize outreach, housing programs and treatment programs are helpful, but their availability is still far below the need. Homelessness continues to be an increasing problem, with a 28% increase in Kelowna's homeless population in just one year.

We need to be aware of the problem of homelessness in our city, province and in the rest of Canada and we need to do something about it. Solving this problem is not rocket science. If humanitarian considerations are not reason enough for some, the financial fact that we would likely save money in the long run by providing affordable housing ought to be.


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