11 December 2008

Homelessness: Advice from a "rougher"

Have a folder on my computer named 'Treasures'. In the five years it has existed, only four items have found their way into it. The following is number four, which I discovered recently on a discussion board.

Have been unable to connect with the author, whose real name I don't know, to get his/her permission to reproduce the article.3 However, given the content of the piece, I feel safe in supposing the author to care far more about the message than being recognized as its source.

The message has way too much importance not to be spread as far and wide as possible. If you're anything like me, it will haunt you long after you've read it - which is a good thing.

Poverty, Homelessness and Willpower
The Secrets We Don't Tell Non-Roughers

Ask the poverty-ridden and homeless in a conventional group what they want and they will tell you exactly what they think the public wants to hear. We've all been nicely trained to parrot the party lines.

You'll hear about addictions, mental illness and system scamming. You'll hear about the need for “supportive housing”, more shelters and better social work services. You will hear exactly what you expect to hear. I refuse to go to any more conventions to hear the same shit that's shoveled to the tune of no real results. Billions of dollars wasted to say, “Homelessness is a problem.” With a unionized construction crew, we could have housed every homeless person in this country on far less money.1

Ask those same de-housed people what they want behind closed doors, without any co-ordinator class, social workers or political influence peddlers and listen to the difference.

The story is very, very different.

Behind closed doors, with our own, we hear about how the system is so broken it leads to chronic frustration, clinical depression, increased emotional crisis', feelings of complete inadequacy and mental breakdowns. You'll hear how some clients have to have 2-10 workers/lawyers/doctors just to negotiate the paperwork of Ontario Works, ODSP, medical care and housing. You'll hear the self-hating guilt about having to accept handouts, leftovers and government support from people that could support themselves on token jobs if they didn't have to pay huge rent or stay in subsidized housing or because we need to obtain the necessary drug/dental/health benefits of government hand-outs that we can't get unless we succumb to OW/ODSP.

You'll see the tears over homes we've had and loved that weren't “acceptable” to the outside world. “They took our freedom. They destroyed our community,” are statements I hear frequently.

Squats, camps near train tracks, under the bridges, street crews.

Our dreams of something better—shattered. People we've loved, people who helped us survive that we must turn away from our doors on a freezing winter's night because “housing” doesn't allow us to have overnight guests that stay too long or make too much noise. Of how many of us have been evicted because we've let the very people who insured our survival crash on the floor. Oh yes, it's pleasant to be warm, the toilet flushes and there's a sense of gratitude corrupted with survivor guilt because for everyone who is housed, we leave dozens behind, abandoned. We go to their funerals to mourn and feel more shame for being alive. We don't talk about that to “outsiders”.

Behind closed doors, we talk about the isolation. About knowing that if one of us died today, our body might not be found for weeks.. If we are ill, no one will bring a street nurse from the clinic, warm a can of soup or call the ambulance. These aren't counted as “homeless deaths”. Yet, no street crew would not scream for assistance should they see a member so ill s/he cannot function. The streets are a stern taskmaster. Yet the reality of poverty housing is that death happens frequently because “the worker wasn't available” or “the neighbours didn't notice anything until it started to smell.” Then the closest social service agency will throw some sort of memorial that has little to do with anything we might have actually wanted or believed.

Behind my brown door you'll hear about the stunning invasions of privacy by social services, housing workers, case managers, supervisors, means-testers—none qualified to do intensive therapy yet digging into the painful pasts of those they claim to serve. Tearing apart the pieces without the skill of putting such a complex puzzle of a disrupted life back together.

There's the $20 research studies that carry on endlessly around this city. Go to a conference, or research study get the $20-40 for your input, let someone shred your shame apart and analyze your personal tragedy then send you home with the honorarium for saying what you know they wanted to hear. Tell them all about your destruction, recall it, flashback by flashback and spend days swirling helplessly in traumatic memories with no supports. You're just another research number. The twenty dollars can buy a bottle, or maybe a chicken dinner and chips to comfort you so you can pick your pieces up again. Maybe an old street crew friend will be around to share your woes but it certainly won't be the paid worker who spends hours stitching up the emotional razor slashes.

The poor live with a chronic invasion of privacy, the likes of which no middle/upper class person would tolerate for an instant. Their life stories are passed from worker to worker, team to team, medical practitioners, psychiatrists, housing workers, social workers, bureaucrats, pharmacists, drop-in staffs, government officials all in the name of “help”.

Sign the dozens of consent forms, please, right here, at the "X". Just in case, of course, that someone scams a nickel's worth of taxpayer's money, that although they might really need it, they are not legally entitled to have it. Then the “help” that has stomped on every shred of dignity that a poor person might possess complain that, “these clients have boundary issues.”

Of course we have no “boundaries” left. We bleed publicly to receive our pittances so often we can't help but hate those we perceive, as ever-present paid-love, inconsistently abusive foster parents. We aren't allowed to tell them, “Fuck off. I don't want to talk about it.” or, “Fuck off. You know fuck all about housing the poor, my history, what I wanted for my life, or anything else, you clueless twit.”

Then we blame the poor for a “lack of willpower”.

Well, what creates “willpower”?

Willpower is belief that since we experienced effecting change in the past, we are capable of effecting change in the future.

If you have little experience with seeing change effected, why would you have any willpower to see something new through? The poor are up against the most powerful forces in the world. Most aren't blinded by false hopes that buoy the middle class. Someone controls their money supply, controls their children, controls their housing, controls what employment that can have, controls their healthcare, controls what medications they can access, controls their food supply, controls where they can live, controls what they are entitled to receive in education and on and on.

When the poor come up with a real solution, they are ruthlessly stomped on by the so-called left and right as well as the media unless being portrayed as pitiful victims with “mental health issues”.

Great ideas that the poor promote are stolen from their brains to be sanitized then utilized by the “professionals” as newfangled programs while agencies weasel out more funding by claiming it was a “client led idea”. The same client who showed up at the meeting because s/he needed the proffered free meal. No permanent paycheque to be had for the “client” who came up with the concept, of course. S/he is 'not a qualified professional'. I stopped counting how many friends I've watched explode from injustice because some professional collected a paycheque after said friend instituted a great little inexpensive and much-needed program as an unpaid volunteer. How much “willpower” can one have left after that experience?

Housing squats and camps are a case in point. A “willing” crew gets together, unites and sets up house. Without legal title they are vulnerable to police raids. Social services might step in to “save” them, splitting them apart and isolating each into shelters and housing them far apart to “save problems”. Any sense of community or political influence they might hope to gain is shattered. They are given welfare or ODSP and turned from people with part-time work paying no rent into a begging citizenry. Some will not stay. They'll find another bridge or crew. Then that community will be raided as well. Ah yes, ladies and gentlemen, these are the “hard-to-house-hardcore-homeless”. The merry-go-round goes on and on...

Social service agencies create “supportive housing”. The residents have no say in the rules, how the place is run, the level of service or intrusion into their personal space. Sometimes there are house meetings that pay lip service to the idea, but in truth, it's just to shut the clients up, cut down on the roaches and bedbugs while it keeps the paycheques and status quo rocking along. If the residents “misbehave” the are told to “get into [name program] or be evicted.”

The 'regular' neighbours complain about the subsidized-housed ones, “They have no sense of community. They don't care about their neighbours.” The same neighbours that sneer down their noses publicly at the “lazy bums” and complain about paying taxes for “welfare frauds.” Or perhaps, the neighbours that care realize there's a problem but are simply ineffective at knowing what to do about it.

Jack Tafari who was a main founder of “Dignity Village”2 once told me, “My biggest challenge in building Dignity was convincing the de-housed they don't have to stay in the missionary position.”

Or more crudely put by someone else, “It's hard to stand up for anything when you're forced on your knees to suck colonialist cock.”

So, what is the solution?

Stop blindsiding the poor with middle class social-work agendas. Face reality.

The government is never going to build enough, or adequate housing for every need. There is never going to be a 0% unemployment rate in this country. Those solutions don't serve the politico-corporate agenda.

When the poor come up with their own communities or alternative solutions, support them. Show them that you will back solutions that are not your ideological preference. Show them that they can effect change if they fight. Fight to legalize their tent cities and their squats and their right to house themselves, work at whatever jobs they can for a little pay or jobs they can invent.

You'd be shocked at the energetic creativity some can unleash if you cut us loose.

Stop forcing us into the arms of social services because it assuages your guilt. Understand that every time a squat, trailer/van stop, or camp is crushed that you destroy our very hopes and dreams for a brighter, more independent future. Realize that you are turning your own countrymen into refugees. Fight for our right to build our own communities even if it looks like a messy eyesore to you.

Because that's what it's really all about.

The poor are an eyesore. We make you feel guilty when we're hanging around under bridges, or at hobo camps, or panhandling somewhere public and political. Our visibility is proof that we as a society do NOT have enough housing and that we don't have all the answers to poverty reduction, or unemployment, or disability or substance use or mental health struggles and we will never have perfect solutions.

Considering the economic downturn, letting people find creative alternatives is going to become even more imperative soon. We need to believe we can effect change.

Admit that the people who are considered “crazy”, or “addicted” might actually know more about dealing with other people sharing their fate than those who are profiting from their poverty. Stop blaming the poor for increasing poverty. When Harris gutted Ontario's social programs and abolished rent controls and tenant protection laws, 100,000 de-housed people did not suddenly lose their minds in the following couple of years.

The present minimum wage will not cover the cost of rent in Toronto, or hardly anywhere else, for that matter.

Give us the support to assert our communal will, for our needs not promoted by the colonialist missionary agenda.

Support us to learn to WIN what we want, for ourselves. Wherever that might take us all.

It might even be somewhere better.

1 Want to know what it actually cost to build apx 85 cabins in Tent City Toronto that housed 115 people?

- About $1,000 in tools.
- $0 in reno scraps that we recycled.
- $200 per wood stove.
- $30 per propane heater
- and $10 per week in propane,
- candles and gaslights bought in by private donators.
- Second hand beds, bathtubs, furniture, all scrounged from the garbage of those better off or donated by supportive visitors.
- TDRC brought in some plastic houses that cost a few thousand each although that was not the majority of housing stock.
- TDRC and the city of Toronto supplied porta-potties. Cost unknown.
- Water was hauled from an open fire hydrant

In short, our actual housing cost the taxpayers $0 although some residents used their $200 per month OW “street pay” or ODSP living allowance for tools and supplies which many also lent around the camp to build more housing.

The Pope Squat was in the process of being renovated compliments of the construction unions who also supplied materials. Now the new building owner has received hundreds of thousands in reno dollars from the City to produce rent-geared-to-income apartments too small for my dog to live in.

Get the picture?

- End -

Have felt the same frustrations and heard them expressed by many of my peers. When will those in power get it? Or is it that they don't care to?

2 Here is the Dignity Village mentioned in the article.
3 July 18/09. Found the author of the article today. Writing under both TVParkdale and now reverting to MetisRebel, she has found a resting stop at Homeless Tales.

ETA Dec 5, 2010: Footnote 3 provides a link to Homeless Tales. The former owner of the domain has since moved on as has, I suppose, TVParkdale/MetisRebel. Such is life when one is homeless.

Recommend this post