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Yet, according to a 2011 report from The Salvation Army, about 40 percent of Canadians believe that individuals choose to be homeless, and nearly 30 percent believe homeless individuals need nothing more than a better work ethic to escape their situation. "It gives us permission to not care," says Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a centre for research on homelessness in Canada, and professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto. "A lot of our prejudices allow us to be comfortable with the idea that, with emergency shelters, we're doing the best we can. We think if we just leave people alone and give them minimal supports, they'll pull themselves up by their bootstraps."
In reality, our reliance on emergency response has turned shelters into a long-term stand-in for a solution. "We have basically been warehousing people in emergency services, in some cases for 20 years," says Gaetz. Meanwhile, some of the support structures that are meant to protect Canadians are crumbling, letting the most marginalized members of society fall through the cracks. But one of the biggest problems, says Gaetz, can be identified through a single decision in Canada's history. "Homelessness exploded as a problem in Canada in the 1990s. That was when we cancelled the national housing strategy." The strategy was once responsible for building affordable housing units, just over 20,000 units in its most productive year.
Sure, there are family breakdowns, job losses and illnesses that play a role in people losing their homes, but policies and big cuts in funding for affordable housing are also key factors. "When you talk to someone who is homeless, they will tell you their personal story. None of them will say my problem started when the government of Canada cancelled the national housing strategy in 1993," says Gaetz.
Teaching people about homelessness
David Blanchard shares his story of spending nearly 13 years on the street as part of his Toronto homelessness tour called Day in the Life Street Walks, run by Journey Ministries, a male-focused outreach program for prostitutes and male human-trafficking victims.
After being molested as a child, David was put into foster care, where he stayed on and off until he was 18. Once out of care, he lived on the streets, surviving as a prostitute. One night, he was raped and was considering taking his own life when a street worker with a Toronto outreach program called Light Patrol found and rescued him.
Today, along with running Journey Ministries, he is a staff intern at Youth Unlimited, the organization that runs Light Patrol, teaching the public what it's like to be homeless. "No individual chooses to be homeless," is the first thing Blanchard tells people. "Everybody on the streets has their story."
Here are some of those stories.
Read Phillip's story: Homelessness and mental illness
Read Samantha's story: Homelessness and prison
Read Ashley's story: Homelessness and youth
Read Joe's story: A solution to homelessness