Thursday, July 17, 2008

Warehousing the homeless

I've decided, that our shelter, is not an emergency shelter at all, it's a warehouse. And it's starting to make me mad. I'm quite outspoken about my madness too, because it really is bothering me.

See here's the thing. To me, an emergency shelter is a place where people stay when they're down on their luck, when they've exhausted all options, when they need a place to revamp and get back on their feet. It's not a place where people live for 10+ years. That to me is something different. We need a place for that as well, but an emergency shelter isn't it.

I feel that we are in fact enabling people. Because we allow people in various states of intoxication into our shelter, they are able to use as much as they want and know they always have a safe place to come "home" to. This is good in theory. It's an accepting place, keeps people off the streets, out of traffic, and from freezing to death. In reality though, it means that people can spend all their welfare money on drugs and alcohol and not having to worry about food and housing.

That being said, in our shelter there are some people whose minds have been so destroyed by substances that I'm not sure they really understand the possibility of change. My heart aches that they have to sleep on a mat on the floor each night - if they make it that far. There are also people not that much older than me, who see no reason to change, and they are definitely capable of changing. It would be HARD work, and no doubt there would be slips, but they could do it. I'm always surprised that they don't see this, or see any reason to change "well all my friends are doing it". I get it, and I don't.

So my thought is, maybe we need housing for some of these people - particularly the old ones. Housing where they had a room, but meals provided, as well as some cleaning and stuff (while teaching life skills). Housing it was hard to get kicked out of, but didn't allow drugs and stuff on the premises (but did allow non violent intoxication). Get them out of the shelter, give them a place to call their own etc... But is that then enabling? Is what we do now just as enabling though? And less dignified?

This is just my first post about this, there will be more, it's an issue that's constantly on my mind as I look out at the shelter night after night.


cb said...

In some ways, I think that at least the frustrations lead us to think about different approaches that can be taken.

It sounds a bit like your proposal runs on the lines of what we call 'wet houses'. They are basically residential homes/hostels for people (almost exclusively men actually - I'm not sure I've come across one that accepts women.. must check now!) who have long term history of alcohol misuse in which they are able to continue to drink (as opposed to the dry houses which are for people who are 'clean').
No drugs allowed though.

The idea is good and works where it operates - the problem often comes when no-one in the community wants to live next door to a wet house. I can say this from the position of having lived a few doors down from one myself! Actually, it never really was a problem for me. I never knew it was there or what it was until I was looking for a resource at work and realised the place I was looking at was on the same street I lived on!
I wonder if there are any similar systems in place around there - possibly not but at least the model exists.
Sometimes just looking at making quality of life better in the smaller more immediate ways is easier than the life-changing..

antiSWer said...

I think it's possible to call a great any things that we do "enabling". What are the alternatives to this "enabling", though? Maybe if we make it harder on them, they'll learn? I dunno...

I don't think the making it easier for them to "spend all their welfare money on drugs and alcohol" is really all that true. If the shelter wasn't there, they'd still be doing what they're doing, but in a much more risky manner. At least you can give them a bit of respite from hell...let them have a glimpse of a better way. Connect and show them that even though they're in pain, they can have a better life.

As for the "wet shelters", they're a great idea IMO. There are actually some in Toronto that allow actual drug use in the shelter. That way, people can be supervised, they're safe and they don't have to worry about a lot of the associated harms. Give people some respect and dignity and they'll change much faster than if you send them away.