When you wake up in the morning, do you wonder if you’ll have a place to sleep at night? Have you walked the streets because you have no place to stay, or sheltered in a doughnut shop and waited for the rain to stop?
Sometimes, it rains all day.
Have you tried to cut your food costs when you haven’t got a kitchen, or fed yourself nutritiously without a fridge for milk? Have you ever had to pack your life into a knapsack every day, and cart it with you everywhere?
Not everyone who’s homeless is a fuck-up. Not all of us are drunks, or sick, or lazy. Some of us have landed here by doing what was right. Some of us have skills that in another time would earn respect. Some of us have callings that society belittles.
Most likely, if you’re reading this, you’re comfortably indoors. When you need to pee, the bathroom’s down the hall. When the munchies strike, you’ll check the kitchen cupboards. When you want to take a break, you’ll stretch out on the couch, or if it’s late, head off to bed. Your bed, no one else’s.
Everyone deserves a bed. No one should go homeless. This is Canada. We haven’t got the climate to be laissez-faire about the poor. We used to have a decent social safety net: welfare for the needy, insurance for the unemployed, pensions for the elderly, universal healthcare. It wasn’t perfect, but it aimed for realistic. As late as 1988, a person needing welfare could apply, and walk out of the office with a cheque. It wasn’t much—$200—but back then it was just enough to tide a person over. What’s more, “emergency assistance” was a one-shot supplement over and above the monthly benefits.
In the intervening years, if you want to know how nasty we’ve become—in Ontario, at any rate—emergency assistance has been dropped, while the total monthly benefit for “basic needs” (everything, excluding shelter) has been slashed. Its value now approximates the former supplement: $216.
Could you exist on that? Especially without a place to call your own? Because on welfare, that’s a real possibility. Capped at $350 per month, Ontario Works' shelter allowance won’t even pay for a room in a boarding house. And since you’re on welfare, many landlords will refuse you anyway, even though it’s totally against the law.
In Ottawa, the waiting list for public housing runs into the thousands. That’s thousands without decent shelter in the Nation’s Capital, a nation proud of its prosperity.
Once upon a time, we used to style ourselves “a just society.” Not anymore. In a just society, prosperity is measured by the living standard of the poor, not the comfort of the rich and middle class.
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James and John and I are moving in together. It’s been a hellish struggle battling with landlords, credit checks and references. Our lives have been on hold for months. And it's not over. ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Programme) is now requiring John to justify moving from a dump to better quarters before granting him his moving allowance, which includes his portion of the last month's rent deposit.
But if we overcome this hurdle, June 1st we have a place. We won’t be any better off, but at least we’ll each have rooms to call our own.