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National Housing Day: Case Management View on Housing

November 18, 2020

It’s a cool September morning, my tea is still warm on my desk. I’ve just gotten into my office and already someone has come by to speak to me. The person sitting across from me has a PhD. They are sharing stories of their time around the world as we discuss their research. As we make small talk about the weather and the upcoming weekend, I can’t help but wonder about the things that must have happened so that I am sitting in my chair right now, and he in his. I don’t have a PhD. Yet I am a case manager at a homeless shelter. And the person sitting across from me is experiencing homelessness.

Growing up we were taught that success in life comes from hard work, getting a post-secondary education, and eating your vegetables. When you pass by my clients on the street you may be empathetic, you may slip them some of the loose change in your pocket. You may even donate some canned goods or come in to volunteer for a day. The entire time you are well intentioned, but you may think “this will never be me”. No one, however, is immune to homelessness. It is a vicious result of addiction, poor mental health, trauma, strained resources and lack of affordable housing, just to name a few. On a daily basis I hear the stories of my clients and I am reminded that tomorrow this could be me, my family or my friends.

Most people think about a homeless shelter as a place to rest your head and get a hot meal three times a day. Within these walls however exists something far bigger. You’ll find shoulders to cry on and motivators to keep pushing forward despite every obstacle. You’ll find story-tellers, knowledge seekers, culture sharers, comedians, care givers, protectors and providers. I am not talking about the staff of the shelter, but rather the people that call these places “home”. These are my clients.

There exists a stigma around homeless that makes the public turn away, unwilling or unaware of how to assist those experiencing it. When we begin to break this down, however, we realize that homelessness has a million faces, that look at lot like me and you. People experiencing homelessness are well educated, work hard, and have families. They deserve the opportunity to have a safe and stable environment to call home. They should not be cast out to the margins of society, left to fend for themselves in a continued state of isolation.

Homelessness is not a chronic illness our city has to continue to suffer through. There are real and tangible solutions to help those who don’t have access to housing. Every single day I meet people who are eager and willing to do the work to find housing, but a lack of resources and affordable housing acts as a barrier for them. Volunteering and donating to shelters or services are a few obvious ways to support the homeless community. Advocating for better mental health and drop-in services, supporting harm reduction approaches as a valid recovery from addiction, and encouraging a diversity of housing options in your neighbourhood are just a few ways to help break down the stigma surrounding homelessness. Those experiencing homelessness are part of our communities, and it is time we began treating them as such.

If there is anything COVID-19 has taught me, it is how crucial these services are for my clients. While yes, the change of service delivery within the shelter has been a rough transition for our clients (and our staff), what is even harder is the inability to now escape from the shelter. I work my 8 hours, come home and have the ability to disconnect from the realities that exist inside my workplace. Small luxuries like sitting in Tim Hortons with a coffee, accessing free internet at Rideau Center or going to the Library to read a book no longer exist for my clients. The drop-in centers that provide resources and support to my clients are now closed or drastically reduced. Registering for anything is virtually impossible because everything is done by telephone or internet now. Detox centers are only taking half of their occupants, mental health resources are restricted, all immigration processes are now halted, and case management services are only now starting to open up again. This combined with the existing lack of affordable housing in Ottawa is leaving everyone in limbo with no end in sight.

While we are working tirelessly, on all levels, to help support our clients through this difficult time we need the support of our community as well. We need the voices of politicians from all levels of government to support initiatives that create more affordable housing. We need our community members to support movements that help end the stigma around homelessness. It is our responsibility as a city to support our most vulnerable. Today it is the PhD recipient in my office, but tomorrow it could be you. Do not take this as a word of caution, but rather an awakening that we are all the face of homelessness. We all deserve to be housed with dignity and respect.

Homes for all. Community for all. Hope for all.