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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

Homelessness Awareness Week 2006: October 16—22

Together we can solve it

by Catherine Evans

Homelessness is a growing tragedy in BC. The visible homeless are becoming more visible and showing up in a broader range of communities and neighbourhoods. The number of invisible homeless is also growing. The invisible homeless include families staying with relatives, teenagers sleeping on friends’ sofas, and people living in their cars. An even greater number of individuals and families are at serious risk of becoming homeless.

In response to the urgent need to address the needs of people who are homeless, and to bring attention to the promising ways that communities have found to end homelessness, volunteer groups and social service agencies in dozens of municipalities throughout North America have organized "Homelessness Awareness Weeks" and "Homeless Connect Days."

Last year in BC alone, there were Homelessness Awareness Weeks in Nelson, Kelowna, Nanaimo, and Victoria. This year, from October 16 to 22 there will be Homelessness Awareness Weeks in Nelson, Nanaimo, Kelowna, Prince George, Kamloops, Whitehorse and in approximately 10 of the Greater Vancouver communities. Victoria and Port Alberni started the year off with Homelessness Awareness Weeks in early February.

These weeks increase understanding of homelessness—how it happens and what can be done about it—and they connect homeless people to services and programs that can provide assistance with some of their basic needs. This year in the Greater Vancouver region, Homelessness Awareness Week is focussing on health—the health of the individuals who are homeless and the health of the communities where they live. There will be a number of events spread throughout the region that will deal with some aspects of the health of people who are homeless, e.g., providing a foot care clinic because many people who are homeless develop conditions such as "street feet" from having chronically damp shoes and socks.

Studies show that people who are homeless often become homeless as a result of a health condition or develop a health condition as a result of living without proper shelter and access to basic health care. The 2005 homeless count for the Greater Vancouver region, for example, found that 25% of the approximately 2,000 homeless people interviewed during the count identified a health condition as the principle reason they became homeless. More serious was the finding that of the people who are homeless, 39% reported having a current health condition, and a further 35% reported having more than one current health condition. The kind of health conditions identified were addictions 49%, medical conditions 35%, mental illness 23%, and physical disabilities 21%. For more information about the 2005 homeless count in the Greater Vancouver region, go to www.gvrd.bc.ca/homelessness.

Apart from the human tragedy these figures represent, there is an enormous social and economic cost that accompanies homelessness. In some communities, business leaders have become involved in addressing homelessness because the presence of significant numbers of people who are homeless directly affects their ability to attract and keep employees. They have also learned that dealing with homelessness by providing housing is the most cost effective and socially beneficial way to deal with the issue.

Homelessness is expensive in ways that are not always obvious—from doubling the average cost of health care on an annual basis, to higher law enforcement costs. US researchers in particular have quantified the costs of homelessness and the results are surprising. In San Diego, researchers tracked 15 chronically homeless people over 18 months and discovered that more than $3 million was spent providing this group with emergency response, health, and other services. The sad thing was that at the end of the day, all of these people were still homeless. More effective in every way and much more affordable would be the provision of supportive housing.

Action is needed in BC to bring about an end to homelessness in our communities. During Homelessness Awareness Week teachers have an opportunity to talk to young people about homelessness and how to solve the problem. Information and resources are available on the following web sites: Greater Vancouver Region: stophomelessness.ca and Kelowna: aware.phat-co.ca.

Catherine Evans is a co-ordinator of the 2006 Greater Vancouver Homelessness Awareness Week sponsored by the Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness.

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