Ottawa Citizen Op-Ed: Let’s Stop Shaming Ottawa’s Homeless
Let’s stop shaming Ottawa’s homeless and give them some hope
Published in the Ottawa Citizen
October 15th, 2018
At Shepherds of Good Hope (SGH), “hope” is in almost everything we do. It’s in our name, reflected in our core values, in how we design our programs and services and is a big part of our brand.
Homelessness, at its core, is complex, as are its causes, and most often it is rooted in trauma. At Shepherds of Good Hope, our employees, volunteers, community agencies and partners are working to offer hope.
These are challenging times. Housing affordability in Ottawa is a significant barrier for many. More than 10,000 people need affordable housing and the housing stock just does not exist. The city has invested in increasing affordable housing; however, it will take years to reduce the wait list. In the meantime, rents in the private market are out of reach for many; there is not enough subsidized housing for individuals and families. Emergency shelters are full. For those of us, like SGH, who are also housing providers, our residences are equally full, with long wait lists.
Poverty is a reality in our rich city of Ottawa.
Like many cities in Canada, we are in the midst of an opiate/overdose crisis. Our mental health system is struggling to meet the needs of citizens who require significant supports. Many people are couch-surfing and living alone in rooming houses without supports. Sadly, we also have housing challenges for newcomers who are fleeing horrific events in their home countries.
Shepherds of Good Hope are concerned that homeless individuals are being shamed for behaviours associated with mental illness, addictions and trauma. There is a prevailing undertone that they should simply pull up their bootstraps, take appropriate medications, stop using drugs, obtain jobs and get off the streets. If only it were that easy.
Often, people self-medicate to escape the trauma they’ve faced, which has contributed to their homelessness. Think about these true stories of people we see every day:
- Young people who have experienced verbal, physical and sexual abuses and choose to flee their homes rather than face continuing assaults;
- People shunned by their families because of their gender identity;
- Individuals whose marriages have dissolved, who have lost jobs and can’t support their families;
- People who have brain injuries, are mentally and physically incapable of looking after themselves and whose families are not equipped to support them;
- Indigenous peoples suffering the effects of the residential school system;
- Mentally ill people unable to understand that medication may help; neither their families nor the health system can accommodate them due to lengthy waitlists for treatment;
- Aging women (60+) living on social assistance with mobility challenges, no family supports, not enough money to make rent payments or buy food and clothing.
These are a few experiences of people who access shelters regularly. They are shamed for being homeless and not just dealing with it “like the rest of us.”
People who experience trauma should not be shamed. Shaming creates divisions and stereotypes. It is not helpful. It does not offer solutions. It does not foster hope. It does not reduce harm. It does not help people when they are most in need of our collective support as a community.
Until we, as a community, can come together to collectively develop the solutions required to support many of our most vulnerable people, can we at least focus on compassion rather than judgement? On care rather than critique? On hope, rather than shame?
Let’s commit to working together to end stigma, support people when they need us most, find solutions to housing affordability and, one day, end homelessness.
Deirdre Freiheit, President and CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope.