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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

There But For…

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday January 8, 04:38 pm
Hating panhandlers doesn’t help the homelessness problem

Saskatoon seems to have an identity crisis: we’re so keen on growing up, yet naively want to retain all the merits of a smaller city.  


Part of that seems to be a lack of understanding that a bigger city will see increased numbers in homelessness and panhandling. Some select business owners in the downtown area apparently have particular difficulty understanding this — as do many other citizens.


Of late, people are grumbling about “panhandling packs” in the downtown area. Apparently panhandlers have friends too, and sometimes even converse with one another. Who woulda thought? 


Lesley Prefontaine is a supervisor with the Community Support Program, a team of five civilians who patrol the business improvement districts and monitor negative street activity in order to address individual issues (homelessness, mental illness, addictions). While she agreed that groups of panhandlers may be intimidating, that fear has yet to manifest itself in a material way. 


“As far as risks go, there's no noted incidences that we've been made aware of,” she says. “Some of it would be perception-based, and some would be what is your level of comfort. It's tough to assess how much risk there is.”


Prefontaine, who patrols the streets daily and works firsthand with panhandlers and the homeless, understands that many of these folk have little other option. As the city grows, homelessness, and some of our insensitivity to it, will only become more apparent.


“There are certainly businesses in our community that don't support individuals who sit there,” says Prefontaine. “I think for a number of people, you have to understand that they're meeting basic needs — whether that's providing shelter for themselves or their families, providing food and security, or being in a safe place at the end of the day. There are certainly people who live with an illness, disability, or addictions issue that make it difficult to make ends meet.”


In a report conducted in 2012, a total of 397 homeless people were found in the city. But as the count happened over the span of one night, the actual number of those homeless in the city is assumed to be much higher.


“That number is just one point in time,” says Shaun Dyck, executive director at Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP). “You're certainly missing people in that count. There may be individuals who have found a room for a night, so you can increase that number. I've seen statistics that say you can triple that number.”


It's also reported that around 15 percent of Saskatoon's population is “couch-surfing” — which amounts to a staggering 30,000 people without a home.


Dr. Stephen Wormith, a psychology professor and director at the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Sciences and Justice Studies at the U of S, says there's no simple answer to address homelessness. 


“Homelessness is a product of a variety of social, economic and health-related conditions. There is no one cause; it's a myriad of issues that come together for a particular individual. Lack of affordable housing makes it difficult, but certainly there are other circumstances — like unemployment and unemployability due to lack of skills, or even mental health issues that are rooted in individuals,” he says.


And poverty in Saskatoon is growing: families making under $20,000 as an entire household increased by 150 per cent over the last five years. SHIP reports that there are families spending as much as 60 to 70 per cent of their income on housing.


“It's a lot. It doesn’t leave much income for anything else,” says Dyck. “Now you can see why the food bank has doubled in use in the last year. The Friendship Inn, and the Food Bank, is tapped. So things are a lot more dire than we assume.”


Much of this can be attributed to the recent economic boom, says Dyck.


“Such is the case of a booming economy — people want to improve their situation,” he says. “If you look at our migration numbers, we're getting more immigrants, refugees, temporary foreign workers and temporary students. The number of those categories from 2005 to 2011 tripled.”


The city does have support programs to help panhandlers and the homeless in their various states of need — just not enough of them. 


“Community mental health services, substances abuse resources and personnel and programs are required — not that they don't exist now; they certainly do. But more are needed in a variety of approaches,” says Wormith. “The difficulty, of course, is generating the resources or providing the resources and the services to individuals necessary in leading to a housing situation.”


The most promising development in recent years has been the Housing First initiative, a model that prioritizes providing safe and stable housing for vulnerable individuals before addressing other issues, like treatment. 


“Traditionally, the old model was to get the person sober, get them appropriate medical attention and once they're sober and stabilized, they'll be more accepted into the housing community. The housing first perspective is just the opposite: the first line of business should be providing stable housing for individuals. Then once you have that basis, other potential issues can be addressed more readily,” says Wormith.


To date, the Housing First program has seen 19 individuals housed over the past six months, and has saved the city some $668,000. But Housing First is still well short on resources.


“There's only so much capacity that can be delivered through a housing first program — it takes a lot of energy,” says Dyck. “A typical case worker maxes out around 15 clients per person. And we only currently have a three person team, while there's close to a 400 homeless person count. There's just not sufficient resources to staff that.”


While Dyck says it's frustrating that more resources haven't been committed, he understands that such programs take time to implement correctly and effectively.


“Yeah, it is frustrating. We want to see it implemented slowly and thoughtfully, instead of just throwing a bunch of money into it and then [saying] ‘Okay, that wasn’t quite working right,’” says Dyck.


“We plan on investing more over the next five years. In the first two years it’s really setting up the infrastructure. If there were the resources and people there, we still have to make sure the mechanisms are in place to ensure success. We don't want to set individuals up in a position that they might fail. There's a lot of pre-work that needs to be done.”


“Once you have that basis, addressing other issues such as mental health, substance abuse, physical employment, education, these issues can be addressed more readily when a person has a reliable roof over their head, a place to call home,” says Wormith. “And that's really a reversal of the traditional way of addressing the issue of homelessness. It certainly looks promising going forward.”

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