This was the first time in 10 years that I did not recognize my community. It would be unfair to say it wasn’t always there, but rather, I haven’t encountered it to this degree. Perhaps it was the stressors of the pandemic, the threat of livelihoods or businesses being lost. Perhaps it was the fact people were paying more attention to their community but really, the reason why is irrelevant.
Many in the social sector have been questioning the why since MPC (Municipal Planning Commission of Medicine Hat) tabled the permit application for the Emergency Day Shelter on April 7.
For the record, 435 North Railway Street is a permitted use, meaning its use is not subject to special review and approval by local government. The former Champions’ Centre has provided support to vulnerable populations since 2006.
So why is the thought of homeless people walking down the street and finding connection such a concern? The easy answer is the idea of homelessness only matters when it impacts people directly. In another area or another city, that is someone else’s problem. Just because you do not see it, does not mean it does not exist, it only means that your exposure is minimal.
Being homeless is not the issue at hand, the discriminatory and archaic thinking is what should be front and centre. We have arrived at a point where some are of the opinion those who do not have a home to call their own do not have the right to walk down the street together, congregate outside a building, share a smoke, connect with friends through conversation all because of what … because they do not fit what our community deems acceptable.
When you talk about those who are seen as a nuisance in community, who are sleeping rough, who exhibit signs of severe mental health, or those in active addiction, I want you to know, I know who they are. Those in the profession have supported them in some capacity for years. The behaviours can be alarming and scary, even for me. We can provide data on the number of interactions, attempts at housing, and recovery. You may be shocked at the amount of time, energy, and compassion that goes into each person we collectively serve. We do not give up on people, even if they have given up on themselves.
We can scream about rights and injustices all over social media when the real injustice is in our backyard. Who is standing up, working within the system and towards change? What is needed is compassion for those still experiencing homelessness. They need people to understand a lack of housing is not their defining attribute.
The emergency daytime shelter has renewed conversation around homelessness, but let’s talk about the facts, not your preconceived ideas about the homeless population that has riled everyone up from the business community to city hall.
Fifteen people are currently experiencing homelessness or sleeping rough in this community. That is a fact. This number fluctuates depending on who is accessing shelter and why. 157 unique people accessed the emergency shelter at some point in 2020, 147 of those were new to the system. Daily shelter utilization is publicly available on the Government of Alberta website.
The streets of downtown are not plagued by gangs of homeless people. Walk downtown, relish in its historical charm and open yourself up to see the person and not the stigma.
The fear of crime is natural, and it exists all over this city. It is not isolated to only where the vulnerable population are. The city has ample information available on crime hotspots and commissioned a longitudinal study on crime and the perception of crime in the downtown.
We will take responsibility for people accessing our services when this rule applies to every other social service, business, and government service. You are asking something of us that you would never demand of yourselves. It is here where the seeds of discrimination are growing. If you need to mitigate the actions of some and not others solely based on economic stability and a roof, you are practicing blatant discrimination.
I encourage you to participate in learning opportunities we’ll be offering to provide context about homelessness and services that exist. It is evident our efforts to end homelessness have been very successful, but the effort to educate community is where we need to invest our energy.
Jaime Rogers is the manager of Homeless & Housing Development Dept at the Medicine Hat Community Housing Society.