How to Not Help the Homeless
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How to Not Help the Homeless

Photo by cl-s from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

It was an ideal setting: the ROM, an audience of 150 attentive listeners, knowledgeable panelists, free admission. Yet last night’s discussion on “Homelessness in our City,” the most recent function hosted by the ROM’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, fell short of its potential.

The two-hour event was designed to feature an opening speech by well-respected street nurse Cathy Crowe, a viewing of Michael Connolly’s film Shelter from the Storm, and an informal panel discussion about homelessness in Toronto today. Speakers included Crowe, Connolly, formerly homeless poverty activist Rainer “DRI” Driemeyer, and Professor David Hulchanski of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto. The timing was just right, given Tuesday’s federal budget announcement and the provincial budget to come. But by the end of the night, there was no clear message of the problems Toronto’s homeless people face today. The film and most of the Q&A were dated, focusing on the homeless community’s problems from six to ten years ago when Tent City was still around.
There was some new information: the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) is now a member of the newly created Recession Relief Fund Coalition that will lobby the government for additional money—the working poor are especially vulnerable in these recessionary times, putting them at risk of losing their jobs and slipping into homelessness. But beyond that, the event largely served as a vehicle to criticize the government and City Hall without providing any clear direction of how things should change or how members of the audience can help.

Without a doubt, these criticisms weren’t unwarranted: there aren’t enough shelter beds in Toronto, those that are available are starting to become infested with bed bugs, and programs designed to help get people off the streets of Toronto (such as Streets to Homes) are sending participants to communities far away from the downtown core where homeless people typically ask for change and have developed a network of businesses and services that they regularly use.
These are important messages, but none of them were conveyed clearly or concisely; attendees were left to discern the systemic problems on their own, limiting their ability to start working on a solution. In the end, the event came across as a bunch of angry activists simply complaining about the problems they face.
It may be a bit too “corporate” for activists’ liking, but marketability goes a long way. Repeat the same message multiple times; have an action plan already formed; provide a handout that informs people of the websites they can visit for more information and who they can contact to get involved. An audience member asked the panel what the public can do right now, and the only off-the-cuff response provided was to contact her city councillor—something she probably already knew.
This isn’t to say that the people who organized last night’s event didn’t have the best intentions in mind. But it’s hard to build a better, kinder, wealthier city without any idea of what that world looks like, or how to even begin getting there.