Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines, Ed. James Hughes. James Lorimer & Company Ltd

On Our Street: Our First Talk About Poverty, Dr Jillian Roberts and Jaime Casap, Illustrated by Jane Heinrichs, Orca Book Publishers

Homelessness in Canada—News from the Frontline

By Katherine Verhagen Rodis (February 22, 2020)

Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines, Ed. James Hughes. James Lorimer & Company Ltd., 2018, 256 pp, $24.95

I saw on Thursday that it was likely be among the coldest days of the year, with a high of -8 degrees Celsius and a low of -14. At -15 degrees or lower, with the Medical Officer of Health for Toronto issues an Extreme Cold Weather alert,  For those experiencing homelessness, the difference of a few degrees can be life-threatening.

In the words of a street nurse interviewed last November by CBC News, “having nowhere to go in this weather, people can freeze and die on the streets.”

In January 2020, an average of 6860 Torontonians per night slept in shelters, many suffering a range of chronic and acute health problems caused by prolonged wet conditions, inadequate clothing, and often mental health and substance use disorders. Some of those shelter beds were provided in the early stages of the current federal National Housing Strategy (NHS) — “an ambitious 10-year, $55 billion+ plan [to] create 100,000 new housing units and remove 530,000 families from housing need, as well as repair and renew more than 300,000 community housing units and reduce chronic homelessness by 50 percent.”

The NHS is a result of a major culture shift in shelter and housing supports provision. It is one that is generative and not punitive, that limits barriers to accessing needed services.

Beyond Shelters is a collection of essays written by experienced shelter and transitional housing managers wanting to see an end to chronic homelessness. The contributors range from executive directors to frontline program staff, from British Columbia to Newfoundland. At least one identifies as having lived experience with homelessness.

Dr. Sam Tsemberis, the father of the first successful Housing First Model, describes his recovery-oriented, client-focused approach that prioritized moving people experiencing homelessness into “housing first” and then provided additional social and clinical supports and services as needed. Many of the contributors work within a harm-reduction framework, one that favours non-judgemental, non-coercive provision of services and resources.

In creating innovative solutions to the problem of increasing need versus constrained funding, shelter services quickly supplemented daily programming with a focus on building life skills, engagement in meaningful activities, income supports, assistance with employment, training and education, and community engagement.

According to Mary Ann Bédard, the General Manager of Shelter of Support & Housing Administration at the City of Toronto, new shelter units alone are not sufficient. “I can’t stress this enough,” Bédard says. “The answer to homelessness is not more shelter beds.”

Thus, our jobs as fundraisers are complex in communicating impact to potential funders. In changing our minds about what shelters need to offer their clients, we have to be prepared to successfully articulate impact to funders in new and meaningful ways. As Trudi Shymka explains, “shelter success will [need to] be measured not just through the number of housing placements but on the ability to mitigate the impact of crisis and support healing. Investment in shelter design that allows for a quality of space beyond the demand for the maximum number of beds will support the need for privacy [and] foster supportive and healing spaces.”

The solutions proposed for transformative change are multiple and complex, as our understanding grows about how to best service diverse populations. Heather Davis, Arlene Haché and Trudi Shymka describe specialized supports needed for gender-based violence shelters. Tammy Christensen, Denisa Gavan-Koop and Kelly Holmes talk about youth-based initiatives as 20% of Canadians experiencing homelessness are youth ages 16 and 24.

Beyond Shelters examines the deeply systemic barriers that shelter and housing support clients face. Several authors address necessary provisions for Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness. A few take on health and shelter systems that perpetuate “colonial constructs of homelessness” and Indigenous poverty, like Arlene Haché in her chapter, “Decolonizing the North.” 

James Hughes

The further Beyond Shelters dives into the nature of homelessness and why a large number of clients cycle back into the system, the more pointed and provocative its questions become. Brian Duplessis blatantly asks, “is ending homelessness and eliminating the need for shelters just a fantasy?”

I hope that we can be better fundraisers if we take on some of the challenges that Beyond Shelters raises. As Duplessis ponders, “change is possible. But it has to be worked for, sweated for and screamed for.” This book gives blueprints for possible change, success stories from across the nation, but it also shows how much work remains to be done. My hope is that everyone who reads it will leave feeling better “equipped to do some of the screaming.”

(Katherine Verhagen Rodis is a proud member of and volunteer for the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She is Senior Coordinator, Philanthropy and Prospect Research at Holland Bloorview Foundation, is #LGBTQ+ and #neurodiverse, (she/her). @kverhagenrodis)

Are children homeless too?

By Gail Picco (February 22, 2020)

On Our Street: Our First Talk About Poverty, Dr Jillian Roberts and Jaime Casap, Illustrated by Jane Heinrichs, Orca Book Publishers, February 13, 2018, 32 pp., $19.16

A few years ago, I attended an exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s work at the Art Galley of Ontario. I wanted to use the audio guide but only the children’s version was available. I rented it.  And it proved to be one of the best decisions I ever made in terms my art education. The curator’s approach to the child listener wasn’t like fairground cotton candy, but designed to help the young listener understand how to engage with the work and how to actually look for the magic in a painting. 

Grateful for the gallery’s consideration of the child viewer, I was also glad for the basic instruction on how one might look at a painting in order to recognize the magic. 

I feel the same way towards the writers, illustrators and publishers at Orca Book Publishers for spending their creative energy to help us understand serious issues affecting so many people in our beautiful, but flawed, country. This book is one of a series of books in The World Around Us series published in Canada by Orca Book Publishers.

Written for children ages 6 to 8, On Our Street: Our First Talk About Poverty by Dr Jillian Roberts and Jaime Casap, and illustrated by Jane Heinrichs, answers basic questions about homelessness, who is homeless and why.

In a rich setting full of photos and illustrations, the book is direct. In response to the question of What’s it like to live on the street? for example, 

“It’s hard to live on the streets. People there are exposed to all kinds of weather, and they can become sick when they can’t keep dry and warm.  People who homeless are often hungry. Even if they have enough money to buy food, they don’t have a place to cook meals. They may feel lonely or judged by other, and they may be treated poorly or be the victims of violence.”

Many of us working the charity sector struggle—I know I do—to explain the dynamics of our work, whether it’s homelessness, poverty, war and conflict, illness or oppression. 

Thus, reading the work of the talented writers and illustrators who make children’s books on these issues offers us two gifts. 

Dr Jillian Roberts
Photo: Joshua Lawrence

The first gift is like the children’s audio guide I was able to use at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It allowed me to begin at the beginning and, truth be told, my art education was not comprehensive to start with. In the same way, I am grateful to have the basics of homelessness and poverty communicated to me in a direct and straightforward manner. I learn a lot from that.  

The second gift is, of course, is the gift we can give our children—the means to understand the world around them. 

This is the first children’s book we’ve reviewed in the CSP Book Blog. But it won’t be the last. Children’s and young adult writers have so much to offer in terms of how we understand and discuss our issues and causes. They are resources we may wish to provide to our young clients to help them understand their own situations. And, as parents, the books provide a means to talk to our own children. 

On Our Street: Our First Talk About Poverty offers us a world of understanding and, once again, reveals the delicacy and strength of the written word. 

(Gail Picco is a charity strategist, author and editor. She edits the CSP Book Blog.)

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