Saturday, December 02, 2006

Stop trying to "solve" homelessness

I'm in Victoria this weekend to celebrate my father's last day of class as a professor at the University of Victoria. He has been teaching English Lit at Uvic for 42 years!

He officially retires next year but his last class was taught Thursday. It's great to celebrate his commitment, creativity and intellectual contribution in reading between the lines of the World's greatest writers. While here, I stopped in on Kathy over at C.A.R.T.S who helps deliver warm clothing and food to Victoria's homeless. CARTS was one of the first ever charities to sign-up at GiveMeaning and I was pleased that we raised $3,000 for their winter campaign last year.

I admire and am inspired by the same quality in my Father and in Kathy. It is about commitment to individual action despite whatever institutional and political interferences exist. In simpler terms, it's about being committed to service for service's sake independent of quantified or qualified outcome.

Sometimes solutions aren't whats needed
When speaking about how to address the problem of homelessness, there are many great minds that proffer wonderfully complex solutions. Job and life-skills training, affordable housing, substance abuse counselling, long-term care for the mentally ill. Wading into the debate, you quickly become drowned in a sea of statistics, opposing theories and policies, all the while the problem never goes away.

The root problem of homelessness will never be fixed when asking the question of how to serve the homeless. Homelessness is an outcome of years of problems. For as long as the real causes of homeless exist in our society (and I expect that they will always exist), then we must look at how to address homelessness as not how to "make them not homeless" but rather how should we respond to people who are the most troubled, the most wrecked, the most broken?

The answer lies not in our heads but in our hearts. And this is why I love that GiveMeaning supports organizations like CARTS. Kathy is as experienced and intelligent as anyone else dedicated to the needs of the homeless but her approach is not to try to get anyone off the streets. Her approach is both the simplest and in my mind, the most effective (if we can use the word "effectiveness"):

The human touch
It is simply to offer warmth, love and compassion to those in need. Faithfully, Kathy, her sister Sharon and the group of dedicated C.A.R.T.S volunteers are out on Victoria's streets every Friday night, giving their love to those who often feel the most uncared for. While their outreach is faith-based, there are no requirements imposed on people they serve. Kathy and her ministry volunteer their time because of their desire to serve their God. The big difference I see with CARTS versus other organizations that deliver services to the homeless is that human intimacy is as important a provision as a hot meal. This isn't an instituational feeding, it's a community between the homeless and the CARTS volunteers who care for one another.

Many people have encouraged CARTS to grow bigger than their current grass-roots organization: Get an office, hire a staff, do more nights out on the street.

But C.A.R.T.S remains dedicated to doing one thing really well. And in my personal opinion, it's the one thing that seems obvious but is most over-looked in the discussion about homelessness: The best "treatment" is love and compassion.

It's being consistently present each Friday night, with not only food and clothes and supplies but to talk with the community, to give love, to share a joke, to take care of one another.

Want to solve the problem? Address the real roots
If we want to eventually solve the problem of homelessness, we must intervene long before someone considers the street their best home. We must make a massive investment and make radical changes to Child Welfare organizations, and to the governmental agencies responsible for identifying homes where children's welfare are endangered. A responsible government should intervene at expense of all other considerations to ensure that a child is protected from a home-life that could endanger that child's welfare in any way.

I've heard it said from people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions that drugs were never the cause of their problems. To them, in the throes of their addiction, drugs and alcohol were the solution. The solution to their pain, to their self-loathing.

What we see in homelessness is the manifestation of years of problems. Those problems were ignored or we as society failed in treating those people of those problems. We should then look at our failures with responsibility and obligation. Acknowledge that the mistakes we have committed likely can't be undone for the people currently living on the street. Above all else, it should be the government's responsibility to look after those that the system has failed to protect and defend. And that this care must be done from a point of view of compassion, not of fixing their "lot in life."

Two things we each can do
At no point am I advocating "giving up" on innovative programs. My mother in her role as a Federal Civil Servant funds many of these programs (along with individual donors and foundations) to great success. But I am saying that as citizens, I believe our responsibility is two-fold: Require our local and federal governments to be responsible for those that they have failed to protect and provide for; To give the compassion, understanding and love to this segment of our population who these basic human needs are so often scarce.

No matter where you live, please consider making a donation to CARTS. They are entirely volunteer-run, and are not sophisticated fundraisers. Each year, they depend and rely on this small fundraising goal they set at GiveMeaning to fund their winter program.

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