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Where Do They Come From?

Every now and then, as I'm surfing through social media, a story, usually accompanied by a video, will pop up over and over. The contents of the videos are often described as "shocking" or "surprising."  "You won't believe what happened next!" they proclaim. The most recent video that comes to mind is a homeless man, Ryan Arcand, who has been homeless in Edmonton for the past 30 years. You can see the video and read the background here:

Now, before I go further, I want to make something very clear - Mr. Arcand is talented, his song beautiful, and the recognition is warranted. This blog is in no way intended to call into question any of those things.

When I see the surprised reactions I find myself wondering, "Where do people think that they come from?" You see, everybody has a story. Every person that is homeless has a story. Part of the problem is that we tend to forget that they are people. We have such a tendency to dehumanize homeless people that we are surprised that they have anything to offer or that they have value.

Would it surprise you that most homeless people I've met have little to no interest in handouts? There are a lot of stereotypes out there about the homeless, but the men and women I've met on the street could rarely be described as lazy freeloaders. Their problems are much larger than that, and the causes of homelessness run far deeper. Interestingly enough, some of the homeless people I've met have been most generous and giving. Though they have little, they give much.

With the events in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, and Remembrance Day on the horizon, would it surprise you if I told you that the story for some homeless people includes years of military service? While the numbers are hard to know in Canada, because of a lack of research, the numbers in the US should be alarming to us. One of the only Canadian numbers I could find suggests that 16% of people who slept on Toronto streets last year are veterans. In the US it is estimated that 26% of homeless people are veterans. Does it shock you that these men and women who have served their countries could end up homeless?

A recent report that was done with 54 male veterans who experienced homelessness found these results:

Some of the major issues that led to homelessness among this group were alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health problems.
Many said their drinking had begun while in the military. Many others resorted to drinking to cope with the transition to civilian life, with their mental health issues, and for other reasons. For many, drinking, drug abuse, and mental health problems caused a spiral which led to homelessness over time.
The transition from military to civilian life was also a large factor in the veterans’ homelessness. Many spoke about the difficulty in adjusting to an unstructured civilian life and the lack of supports they received in moving from military to civilian life.
Because of the time span between their release from the Canadian Forces and becoming homeless, these veterans were not eligible for CF benefits.*

Considering that the Canadian Forces release about 5000 people a year, 20-25% for medical reasons, I'm going to suggest that, when the research is done, our numbers will be staggering as well.

It's sad, but I'm using Canadian Forces numbers because I know that it's something that will touch a chord with people. Aboriginal people are considered to be over-represented in almost every urban centre in Canada and it gets worse as you head west and north (Fort McMurray is a prime example of this). More generally, youth between 16 and 24 account for 20% of the homeless population.

If there's anything I can leave you with, it's this: the homeless population is made up of mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers. It's made up of grandparents and grandchildren, and sons and daughters. The next time you encounter a homeless person, acknowledge that they exist, and treat them with dignity and respect. If you were in their place, you would probably quickly realize that that's what you really want. If you have a few minutes, introduce yourself. Ask them their story. Chances are, you'll find yourself surprised the first few times.  But, I can assure you, it'll probably change your life.

*"The Experience of Homelessness among Canadian Forces and Allied Forces Veterans"
Susan L. Ray and Cheryl Forchuk, Lawson Health Research Institute (2011)


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