Getting out of the homelessness cycle

‘I can’t believe that these services and shelters haven’t clued in that they need trauma experts’

For three years Tracy Ray Lewis lived next to drug-dealing neighbours battled a negligent landlord and lived with plumbing that flooded her low-rent apartment with dishwater and feces on a weekly basis.

“I had plumbing backups so bad that I would come home from classes and there would be feces all over my floor overflowing up through the shower” she says sitting in a coffee shop less than a block away from her former Mission-area home.

She endured all of this because she didn’t want to end up on the streets or in a shelter yet again — places she sporadically called home over a decade while battling alcoholism and mental illness.

“I remember being able to get booze at my family reunions when I was six — by 10 I knew how to get beer if I wanted it” says Lewis a victim of child abuse who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

She also suffers from debilitating migraines that cause blurred vision and slurred speech sometimes lasting up to four days. “They look like a stroke” she says. “Just that alone can make me unemployable.”

Even though she has since moved and her shower no longer backs up her current situation isn’t much better. “I’ve been harassed verbally abused and threatened” she says referring to her landlord who she claims has threatened several times to lock her out if she doesn’t sign a rewritten lease.

Lewis now six years clean and her friend Nigel Kirk who struggles with mental illness and in the past battle with a cocaine addiction are trying to have their voices heard. Their stories paint a painfully vivid picture of being homeless addicted and ill — all the while dealing with bureaucratic red tape in an effort to get back on their feet.

“You can’t get social assistance when you’re homeless” says Kirk. “If you’re lucky you’ll qualify for AISH ( Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) .”

Even if one is “lucky” enough to receive AISH funding a maximum of $1038 a month the journey through a seemingly endless cycle of doctor appointments lineups confusing paperwork and red tape — often lasting a year or longer — is enough to break anyone down say Lewis and Kirk.

“It’s so complicated that it requires support just to get through the paperwork and understand what kind of referrals you have to ask your doctor for — and doctors don’t know the process so they can’t help you” says Lewis. “It’s unbelievably confusing.”

Not just confusing but also marginalizing says Robert Perry senior director for the Calgary Urban Project Society. “You’re powerless there’s no place to give a voice and once you’re there you can be so easily discounted and ignored” he says. “It is a problem giving a voice to the poor the marginalized and the homeless.”

The Calgary Homeless Foundation’s ambitious 10-year Plan to End Homelessness has made some gains since its 2008 beginnings housing 1200 people working to improve co-ordination between agencies and funding 2165 future housing units.

Tim Richter CEO of the foundation says while the 10-year plan has been “making some pretty solid progress” there’s room for improvement. “No plan is perfect” he says. “Frankly nothing is fast enough. Unfortunately it takes time and we’re all learning.”

The foundation’s 10-year plan is currently being updated first by improving its research into the causes nature and best practices to solve homelessness and once that is known the information will be implemented in the plan.

Homelessness is a situation people don’t recover from overnight says Kirk who recently found a relatively stable home after three years of bouncing from shelter to shelter. “It’s trauma incarnate” he says. “If you’re homeless for three years you are experiencing trauma for three years.”

While many organizations are making gains in finding people affordable and safer housing additional support services are still lacking. “I can’t believe that these services and shelters haven’t clued in that they need trauma experts — real mental health professionals” says Lewis. “Not some basic street-level training of a general staff member.”

Dermot Baldwin executive director of the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre says although many organizations are well intentioned they often rely too heavily on “academics and professional marketers” to draw up solutions for homelessness.

“I think there is a bit of selective hearing” he says. “I don’t think they’re completely off-track but I think they could use more balance so that they talk to the people who use the service and the frontline people.”

Baldwin credits the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness for creating more awareness about the need for more affordable housing. But like Lewis he says there needs to be more support for people who are struggling with mental illness and addictions.

“I think that it’s very unwise to assume that just giving people affordable housing is a cure-all for a whole range of other problems” says Baldwin. “It’s really unintelligent to look at it from that point of view.”

Simply placing them in regular apartments often upsets other tenants and neighbours and further entrenches stereotypes he adds.

Richter acknowledges the challenge charities face such as affording trained staff and matching people on the street and living in poverty with the proper housing and support they need. “We’re developing standards to make sure that all funded programs follow set standards to make sure people get the support they need” he says.

Kirk and Lewis are less diplomatic about a system they see as an assembly line of cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all solutions to ending homelessness and that treats people like commodities and data.

“Poverty homelessness and mental health issues that go with it aren’t about money and resources” says Lewis. “It’s an oppression problem. If you change the way people think about the worth of people they’ll start to come up with solutions.”

Email: thowell@ffwd.greatwest.ca