From the Desk of Alex Binkley, Contributing Editor

Experts agree: Stop studying and implement existing solutions to street level ills

By Robert Roach
Director — West in Canada Project
Canada West Foundation

It's at the tail end of a recession that its human impact is felt most acutely — jobs are scarce, emergency savings and credit dry up, charities are stretched to the limit and hardship grips many Canadians. This reminds us that recessions are not just about GDP and stock prices — they are about human beings, many of whom are in dire straits.

The human face of economic cycles points to another social issue that is often dehumanized: Canadians who find themselves out on the street. Some are runaways who have fled abusive homes, some are suffering from mental illness, heartache or addiction and some are families who just couldn't make ends meet. Every single person you see dumpster diving, asleep in a park, lining up for food in a church basement or forced into the sex trade has a story worth hearing.

Despite this, there is no more marginalized group of citizens in Canada. They are the forgotten, the nameless and, worse, a problem to be solved. For every smile from a passerby, every dollar given to support a shelter and every non-profit staffer working late to help the homeless, there are a dozen looks of disgust, a dozen complaints about wasting tax dollars and a dozen calls for crackdowns to “clean up” the streets.

As a society, we are much more concerned about how white our teeth are than figuring out how to repair holes in the social safety net. This is not because Canadians are heartless people, but because of two mistaken assumptions: everything is being taken care of by someone else and people in the street deserve to be there.

We don't want to see the holes in the safety net because this would mean that we would have to give something up to mend them. However, social justice is not free.

We don't really want to hear stories that end with people on the street because they would melt our hearts and force us to abandon the stereotypes that define people on the street as lazy screw-ups who don't want to work. Put yourself in the shoes of someone on the street and you will have a very different perspective.

This does not mean that everyone on the street is an angel in disguise who just needs a chance. That kind of idealism does not get us very far because the reality is way more complicated. You don't reverse the effects of abuse, mental illness, addiction, low self-esteem and poverty with a sandwich, a hug or job sweeping up out back.

So what can we do? As a new Canada West Foundation report shows, a lot.

The many people and organizations dedicated to serving those who find themselves on the street have learned a great deal over the years about what works and what doesn't.

In addition to dumping the two assumptions noted above, four approaches emerge as promising practices.

The first is harm reduction, which tries to reduce self-harm activities without requiring the cessation of that activity. Common examples of harm reduction include needle exchange programs, medical prescriptions for heroin and methadone treatment.

The second is housing first, which focuses on providing stable housing as a prerequisite to assisting individuals who live on the streets. Housing first programs move individuals into stable and healthy housing directly from their situation on the streets or in shelters. The newly housed resident is then offered a range of support services such as mental health, income support or addictions services.

The third is community justice. Rather than simply sending an offender to jail, this approach demands that both legal counsel and judges examine the circumstances underlying a specific crime, how these underlying causes might be addressed, how reparation can be made to the victim and community, and how a reintegration of the offender into the community can be successfully achieved.

The fourth approach is community ownership. This is more than the practice of community consultation and including a broad range of professionals, service providers, businesses and government representatives in planning solutions to social challenges. Rather, it reflects the fact that community participation requires a commitment to putting clients at the centre of planning, their full participation in decision-making and their ability to make choices regarding their own lives.

These approaches are not pie in the sky idealism — they are difficult to execute and their effects are not immediate. They also require reclassifying people on the streets as citizens rather than continuing to see them as problems or pretending that they don't exist at all.

A free copy of Community Solutions: Promising Practices and Principles for Addressing Street Level Social Issues, by Dr. Jackie D. Sieppert, can be downloaded from the Canada West Foundation website (

October 6, 2009 — Return to cover.