Written by: Tyler – HIV Strategy Housing Support Coordinator at Carmichael Outreach
As a recent graduate of the University of Regina, I recall all of the discussions that would come up around the time 5 Days 4 the Homeless each year. Generally, narratives began with, they’re just playing homelessness, or they’re just sensationalizing homelessness. These narratives then followed with critiques of where the dollars went, asking questions like, why not just give the $25,000 to homeless individuals?, and why give money to organizations that don’t provide service with respect for individual’s dignity? Each of these questions or possible critiques is absolutely worth consideration, and yet, having now worked in human services outside of the sterilized environment of a university classroom, I have a few thoughts to share that may answer some of these concerns.
First, 5 Days 4 the Homeless only sensationalizes, or plays homelessness if the greater dialogue about homelessness and the social issue of poverty do not become a part of the discussion during the 5D4H event. As the participant organization, our comments and interviews during this time focus on the inability of a 5 day event to replicate homelessness, and the need to continue these conversations in the media, classrooms, and board rooms year-round. Each participant this year had several conversations with members of the Carmichael Outreach team, conversations about homelessness and our experience as staff. They even met some of our clients, who were able to share lived experience and educate them about what homelessness really looks like. None of this was done to make it a viable event, but because the participants actually cared about understanding homelessness in its context. It becomes paramount then, to push for coverage that doesn’t merely celebrate the nobility of participants, but instead highlights the social immorality of enabling homelessness and poverty to perpetuate in a social construct of moral and ethical choice instead of trauma, opportunity and humanization. This is a constant struggle of any discussion around poverty and community engagement of the privileged, and one not limited to 5 Days for the Homeless. This is also the desire of the organizers as documented in the University of Regina newspaper. Intention isn’t everything, but it’s clear the breakdown is not in the creation of this event.
A second critique that I heard last week was that organizations restrict service provision and don’t respect the inherent dignity of clients. I can confidently say that this is not descriptive of Carmichael Outreach. We provide services within a harm reduction framework; a framework centred in the inherent worth of a human being their humanity, not their ability to socially and economically commoditize their life for some type of profit. In fact, all of our services are provided free of charge, and outside of a milk program and food bank orders, require no identification to participate. It is safe to say that service provision is not restrictive, and is in fact focused on meeting the needs of individuals without pre-condition or expectation of “personal improvement”. Any critique of our organization as restrictive, or lacking respect, is spoken by someone who has never entered our doors or participated in what we do. That is not to say that we are perfect, because we most certainly are not, but we are in regular interaction with our clients, discussing how our service delivery can improve in meeting their needs and respecting them as individuals. We work with them, support them, do whatever we can for them when they communicate what they need, and on top of our service delivery, we are advocating for the very social change that critics say gets missed by 5D4H.
Lastly, I feel the need to highlight one specific critique that I read last week during this year’s week-long event. It questioned why the $25,000 dollars raised didn’t just go directly to homeless individuals. A valid question, but it is again reflective of critical thought being employed without context, understanding of welfare policy and systems, or even the circumstances that surround an individual experiencing homelessness. Homelessness, largely, is connected to past trauma, the breakdown of support in an individual’s life, and an economically disadvantaged position among other circumstances and barriers. Many homeless individuals are experiencing stigma and discrimination because of their position, and are using coping mechanisms that do not enable them to move to the position that they want to. These are very real concerns that should force open the doors to greater conversations about addiction and mental illness as health issues instead of as career choices that are easily taken up and easily put down. Should we homeless individuals receiving assistance with $25,000, they will immediately be cut off of assistance (depending on how much money they are provided).
This generates new/greater costs, including:
These hypothetical costs are limited and assume that they are able to access the food bank for some of their food costs, have furniture available to them through a furniture donation program, are able to find housing, don’t have any medical issues, and that they access quality housing that does not force them into sub-standard living. Housing costs roughly $850 per month for a 1 bedroom apartment, meaning to get an apartment and be in it for one month is an up-front cost of $1,700 with an ongoing cost of $850 per month. Transportation (buss pass) costs $62 monthly, and I can safely say as a home owner that utility costs, generally power and telecommunications are not covered in rental, would be between $100-$175 for basic telephone service and water. Food costs, having seen the little amount of food that the food bank tries to stretch between all of its clients are based on someone’s inability to access food programming due to insufficient transportation and the requirement of working a low-wage labour position now that they do not have access to assistance. That cost can be assumed, on the absolute, bare, subsistence level to be about $50 extra per week on top of food bank food. So our monthly costs are up to about $1,100 dollars per month, with no additional costs or emergency expenditures. What this means is that we would help a maximum of 25 individuals for one month and then effectively harm them because $25,000 does not solve homelessness. Even if the money was distributed amongst many in need, we would effectively be throwing a cup of water on a forest fire.
On top of the financial issues stated above, this post does not, nor can it even begin to address how addiction and mental illness may wreak havoc with an idealized “working poor” plan. Sub-note: A valid conversation would discuss why assistance forces those in need into even greater poverty to get service, pays nearly $2100 per month for an individual to live in shelter, but pays $459 in rental allowance to the same person seeking private housing. Or perhaps, a discussion around food security and the rising cost of living that drives an individual to have to use the food bank would be beneficial. These systemic critiques and questions are valid and must be addressed as a society.
What is missed in the critique of these events is this: Criticism is laid at the feet of those who participated by those who did not and who criticize the campaign from a distance without clarified knowledge of its goals, effects, contributors, and benefactors. If engagement is limited to critique of other’s engagement, how is that any more beneficial to pushing for the social change we all recognize needs to happen?
Yes, we must push for social change. Yes, poverty is perpetuated by a breakdown in community. Yes, social assistance imprisons individuals rather than supporting them. Yes, those fighting addiction mental illness are often treated as lacking moral capability to meet the social constructs of citizenry and the rights it entails.
These issues are major, systemic issues rooted in racism, stereotyping, economic discrimination, and pre-conceived notions of the “proper” community member. As an organization, we experience and fight against these constructs daily. We demand dignity for community members and figuratively (and sometimes literally) fight for their lives. This is both in immediate action, and our struggle for long-term, positive social change. Our participation in 5D4H does not contradict these goals, but in fact delivers $25,000 into our hands to help move these goals and services forward. We do not function as a paternal entity, but a lifeline to clients who are looking for the support and empowerment they need to make the changes they desire.
We owe it to homeless, marginalized, oppressed individuals to demand change in how events like these are covered, the conversations that surround these events, and the social constructs that lead to the creation of charity and all its’ hypocrisies and contradictions. However, this isn’t the fault of five students, an organizing committee, or Carmichael Outreach and other Carmichael-like agencies fighting for their lives. We enter into this event with our eyes wide open to the struggles our community faces, and we fight for them.
It is my opinion that we live in a world where media coverage is dictated by the interest a citizen has in a particular story. Short stories that are unable to provide proper context dominate the framework in which we receive our news, along with advertisement revenue. Conversations with volunteers, organizers, department heads highlight that 5 Days for the Homelessness is not and never has been an attempt to replicate homelessness. It’s an opportunity to push for more awareness about the incredibly problematic social narratives that enable and perpetuate homelessness while raising vital funds for us to help sustain individuals’ survival and empower them to make the changes they desire. I’m able to view this critically and recognize problems that should be addressed regarding this yearly event, and I aim not to further harm those who have already faced so much oppression.
I invite critics into participation in this event and constructive input for the purpose of eliminating both oppression and opportunities for sensationalized representation. It is only when we build community together with respect and understanding of our common humanity that we will overcome issues far greater than a 5 days fundraising event.