The Eastside Stride

Last Sunday, my mother accompanied me on the Eastside Stride with the Union Gospel Mission. It was an event that took place during Homelessness Action Week and functioned as a combined public awareness and low-income employment program.

The Downtown Eastside is infamous for being ‘Canada’s poorest postal code.’ Any mention of it by the newspapers usually pertain to rampant mental illness, prostitution and drug addiction- it portrays DTES as a relatively hopeless area and has led to many of its residents becoming marginalized. The event took the form of hourly walking tours of the Downtown Eastside as means of introducing its diverse community and rich heritage to the larger world. The purpose of the Eastside Stride seem to be an endeavour to humanize the neighbourhood and mitigate the harmful perceptions associated with it.

Our tour was led by a DTES community member and a UGM outreach worker. We were taken around historical and cultural landmarks, many of which signified the history of the area, and were peppered with interesting facts about the community. Along with learning about the cycle of poverty which determines the poor conditions faced by individuals in poverty, we were educated on the history of the port and the Japanese community who became defunct after the introduction of internment camps during the second World War.

We saw the working locations of organizations that are active in the area such as Megaphone Magazine (a street paper, much like the UK’s Big Issue, which provides low-income people with a voice and a means to acquire income by vending the paper), Pivot Legal Society (a legal advocacy firm that deals primarily in discrimination, housing and poverty reduction) and Quest Food Exchange (a food exchange program which provides healthy and affordable food to marginalized individuals). It was refreshing to see the offices of non-profits that I’ve heard so much about and to become aware of those that I had missed.

Unfortunately, I was unable to finish the tour due to an emergency but, at the end of it, walkers had the chance to participate in the speakers corner to share their thoughts and feelings about what they had seen.

I’ve talked to a few people about my experience and some of them were a little put-off about being unable to go but UGM do plan on conducting tours next year during HAW 2013 and self-directed audio tours are still available on smartphones. It’s something I’ll definitely be partaking in soon- I don’t think I have the patience to wait another year to finish the tour.

The quality of a program like this is the fact that its accessible and speaks to the layperson who has heard of the DTES but doesn’t know much about it. Some of them think the tours should be taking place year-round because of the numbers of interested people who don’t have the time or resources to set up independent tours or try to research the issue themselves but I agree with UGM’s concern that this could be disruptive to the community. Monthly tours would be great though especially during the winter months when walkers can truly sense the physical and mental health implications of homelessness.

I love initiatives like the Eastside Stride and even Homelessness Action Week at large. Public awareness programs can be lost in the discourse when more emergent issues seem to require attention but they are vital to poverty-reduction if we wish to accomplish our goal of establishing supportive and inclusive communities.

Overall, I’m so thankful to UGM and our tour operators for giving me this opportunity and I’m sure everyone else who took the tour feel the same.

(Credit: UGM)

Learning About Housing First

I managed to pop into the Gordon Avenue Supportive Housing and Emergency Shelter open house at Coquitlam City Hall last night. I didn’t have much time to look around since I had to run to the Golden Spike Days Society AGM but from what I observed, the architectural plans and programming seem to be on track and the hosts (which included staff from the City, BC Housing and representatives of RainCity Housing, the non-profit organization responsible for operating the project) were optimistic about an early 2015 opening day. Some of the plans can be found here. They’re quite thorough and include some definitional terms that the general public may be unaware of (i.e. the difference between transitional housing and shelters). I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to check it out because it falls in line with what I’ve been researching for the past little while.

I’ve recently been reading more about Housing First through chapters of an ebook after addressing it in my dissertation as a means to ending further violations of human rights- basically, the idea being that the provision of housing to the homeless, without any conditional factors, can improve their human rights and well being. It is in contrast to a treatment-first approach where treatment for substance abuse or mental illness is given before being moved into stable accommodation. These are the elements of the Housing First philosophy (Homelessness Hub):

  1. No housing readiness requirements. Individuals and families are not required to first demonstrate that they are ‘ready’ for housing. This approach runs in contrast to what has been the orthodoxy of ‘treatment first’ for homelessness, which suggested that people who are homeless should be placed in emergency services until they are ‘ready’ for housing (having received access to health care or treatment).
  2. Choice. Key here is the idea that clients are able to exercise some choice regarding the location and type of housing they receive. As we will see below, choice may be constrained by local availability and affordability.
  3. Individualized support services. Some people, once housed, will need minimum supports, while other people will need supports for the rest of their lives, ranging from case management to assertive community treatment. A key philosophy of Housing First is that people have access to the supports they need, IF they choose.
  4. Harm Reduction. Harm reduction aims to reduce the risks and harmful effects associated with substance use and addictive behaviours for the individual, the community and society as a whole, without requiring abstinence. In Housing First, this means that absolute sobriety is not required (though as part of the spectrum of choices, people may choose ‘abstinence only’ housing) and a tenant cannot lose housing because of substance use.
  5. Social and community integration. Part of the Housing First strategy is to help people become socially integrated into their community and this requires socially supportive engagement and the opportunity to participate in meaningful activities. If people are housed and become or remain socially isolated, the stability of their housing may be undermined.

Canadian initiatives for the program are spread out throughout the country and are rapidly growing. Despite regional variations, all Housing First programs should be seen to comply with the core values of the program.

I understand that some may be initially skeptical about whether poor and marginalized individuals would be able to live independently without help but it’s important to realize that the principle of Housing First falls in line with the right to housing as embodied in ICESCR and ratified by our government. An essential part of implementing the program includes disseminating knowledge about it which may include myth-busting. Especially in regards to reports of failures, stereotypes about the ability of those needing help to remain in secure housing and some forms of NIMBYism. It’s helpful to assert that Housing First works.

But it doesn’t end at the provision of housing- establishing steady housing seems to be in line with harm reduction philosophies. The provision of services through staff and partnerships provide the rehabilitation and integration part of the program. Team interventions are the essential part of most programs which progress the ‘treatment’ stage of Housing First by way of either Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), which consists of multidisciplinary support teams accessible to individuals, or Intensive Case Management, which takes a case management approach to developing integration plan. As described in RainCity Housing’s newsletter, they’ve been active in establishing ACTs team which has positively influenced the lives of many of their clients. Wes, a participant in the program asserted that it brought him “out of despair” and was elemental in providing him with the tools to secure an occupation and give him the confidence speak out at public conferences about Housing First.

Of course, the most troublesome part of the program seems to be lack of affordable housing. Housing First proponents insist that consumer choice cannot be sacrificed, yet, how are we supposed to offer affordable housing when the prices of property in cities such as Vancouver are soaring. While Vancouver has attempted to implement the program within the city (with much success as seen at The Vivian), the report doesn’t deny that this will be challenging for future programs especially due to the initial costs. Of course, in terms of scattered housing, landlords can be brought on to the table with incentives such as guaranteed rent and damage coverage but it doesn’t help the problem at large. Learning about Housing First has encouraged me to view the current housing condition in Vancouver as positively disabling. While rental supplements can help some individuals, there’s no doubt that changes need to be made in the way housing is distributed among the city in order to make the most out of Housing First.