Woven plastic mats the answer to homelessness, who knew?


“Falls Brook Centre hoping to get 11 mats made to make up for lack of beds in the city,” reports the CBC yesterday. The mats in question are apparently woven from discarded plastic shopping bags. The group has already made three, and are ‘hoping’ to make eight more. OK then.The same report tells us that the men’s shelter in Fredericton has 39 beds the city actually needs a minimum of 50 beds to accommodate the number of homeless people every night. Hence the 11 mats.

Last night it was -7ºC in Fredericton. The night before it was -16ºC. This is Canada, folks. On the other—warmer—side of the Atlantic volunteers are addressing a similar problem. There are 4000 homeless people in Belgium. Because canvas tents are banned there, a local concerned citizen, Xavier Van der Stappen, designed a cardboard tent using donated materials from a nearby factory. He’s produced 20 of them, aiming at improving the design and making 100 more. That only leaves another 3880 people without shelter on the streets. OK then.

 While I admire the enterprise and compassion of these creative volunteers, where are our public services? Why, with all the corporations sending tax-free income—and jobs—offshore, are our governments not doing something to alleviate suffering on our streets? The question isn’t just rhetorical.

Getting to answers is as complex as the reasons why people end up on the street. Homeless people don’t only suffer from lack of money. Many suffer from substance abuse, mental illness, physical handicaps, lack of skills and education, and more. Over the past four decades our governments have cut back on the social services that looked after these people. The not-for-profit sector has picked up some of the slack, relying on private donations to keep their operations going. But, no matter how conscientious their efforts may be, it’s no substitute for a unified, coordinated, society-wide solution.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Since 2005 the State of Utah has reduced homelessness by 75 percent. It’s estimated that there were only 300 homeless people in the state by 2015. How did they pull off this miracle? Under a program called Housing First the state government built homes for them.

The idea came from Sam Tsemberis, a New York University psychologist, back in 1992. “I thought, they're schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, brain damaged,” he said in an interview with Mother Jones. “Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counselling and therapy, healthcare, and let them decide if they want to participate?” The idea worked gangbusters, reducing homelessness by 88 percent over 5 years. Public officials had their doubts, but the idea caught on in Denver, Seattle, Massachusetts and, most successfully, in Utah.

All in all, the situation here is not as dire as elsewhere. The city of Edmonton with an urban population similar in size to the entire province of New Brunswick has a homeless population of 1750 people. Estimates done by the Point-in-Time Count, a national strategy funded by the federal government, pegged our provincial homeless population at about 200. The survey identified 13 people experiencing “absolute homelessness” in Bathurst, 50 in Fredericton, 60 in Saint John and 77 in Moncton. That’s significantly fewer than, say, the city of Thunder Bay, where there were 289 people—75 percent of them Indigenous—living on the streets.

But even 200 are too many. Of the 60 homeless people in Saint John almost 50 percent of them are women, which is far above the national average. One probable reason: domestic violence.  Another is the extremely high poverty rate among single mothers in the region.

There’s no excuse for this in a city that is home the largest oil refinery in the country, and one of the wealthiest families in Canada, especially one that has been tax-sheltering its wealth in Bermuda for decades.

The logical answer would be to increase taxes on extreme wealth in this province, and abolish homelessness and poverty in this province. But that is nowhere on this (or any past) government’s radar.

Instead our government is busy trying to privatize health care services, which, given experience of privatization around the world, is only going to produce a reduction of services. Going backwards is never going to solve our problems going forward.

Is anyone listening? Hello, Fredericton?

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