AMHERST – Homelessness is not just a big city problem and it’s much more than stereotypes of someone living under a box or pushing a shopping cart around town.
Members of Cumberland County Empowering Beyond Barriers society came together on the shortest day of the year Dec. 21 to mark the longest night of the year.
“No one chooses to be homeless, the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, unhealthy, unsafe, stressful and distressing,” Alison Lair of Empowering Beyond Barriers told a small crowd that gathered in bone-chilling winds at Victoria Square in Amherst. “The causes of homelessness are varied and are usually out of the person’s control. Homelessness is the result of systemic and societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing or the individual or household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges.”
Lair said it may be difficult to recognize someone who is homeless, or who is moving from place to place because they have been kicked out of their home or been forced to leave for other reasons.
Until the community acknowledges homelessness is an issue it will never be addressed, she said, and it’s as simple as caring about someone who has no place to stay, making eye contact and working for a better community in which everyone has a roof over their heads.
In Halifax alone, there are an estimated 1,700 homeless individuals throughout the year and throughout Canada it is estimated that 157,000 people are homeless each year.
She said some people may experience homelessness for short periods of time whereas others are considered chronically homeless defined as experiencing homelessness for six or more months. Over half of homeless people in Canada are considered to be chronically homeless.
“In addition to the homeless people who sleep on the streets or access shelters, there is also a group of homeless people considered to be the hidden homeless – those who don’t have a home to call their own, who are couch surfing with friends or relatives and who are living in a precarious housing situation,” Lair said. “The numbers of those experiencing hidden homelessness are not well known as they don’t tend to interact with the homelessness serving systems, but in communities surveyed in 2016 numbers ranged from 1.1 per cent of the homeless population to 49.8 per cent.”
Lair said the Liberal government’s new National Housing Strategy is a step in the right direction to reducing homelessness across Canada, but more needs to be done to reduce societal and systemic barriers that cause homelessness and keep people homeless.
“Even little things can help to make a difference, things that you and I can do. Treat homeless people with the same respect that you would treat others,” she said. “I know that I am not alone here in having purposefully avoided eye contact with a homeless person sitting on the streets.
“Homeless individuals often say that their loss of dignity is one of the hardest parts of being homeless. Make a pledge today to do something differently, be it as small but meaningful as smiling and saying hello to a homeless person, or talking to your MLA about things such as benefit reform, minimum wage increase, affordable housing and emergency shelters to name just a few important topics or educating yourself and others about the causes of homelessness which in turn would help to reduce the stigma around homelessness. Every little bit counts.”