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Opinion: Why are we taking such a backward approach to helping the homeless in our city?

'Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back for this shelter and admit that it is not working and is, in fact, making things much worse for the citizens of North Bay and for the people who are coming from other cities to this shelter'
20200929 homeless tent city  ity hall north bay cd
Homeless people have set up a tent city on the lawn of North Bay City Hall. ChrisDawson/BayToday.

Okay, here’s the thing, I was employed in the Social Service field for over twenty years and, beyond this, I am a human being.

I can see, I can hear, I feel a range of emotions, and, I can reason. I have the ability to look at a problem, see what is working and what is not, and modify what I am doing accordingly. As human beings, we all have these abilities. So why are we taking such a backward approach to helping the homeless population in our city?

It seems the number of homeless people in our community is growing daily, overdoses are increasing and our Low Barrier Shelter, in my opinion, is only exacerbating this problem.

I am a human being and, as such, I know that when hope and dignity are lost we run the risk of becoming little more than our furry friends, seeking food and shelter and, essentially, a means to just survive. Our low barrier shelter breaks all the rules in terms of providing hope and dignity and then, when a resident of the shelter is heard being “rude, pushy and ungrateful” we blame them.

Imagine being a person suffering from a mental health and/or addiction problem so severe that you find yourself with no place to live, nothing to eat, physically ill, no way to wash your clothes, or manage basic hygiene.

You are entering a low barrier shelter because you have absolutely no choice but you know when you enter that this might very well be the end of your life because no real timely help is being offered and by the time you actually make your way to the top of the long list for addiction treatment and/or a quality mental health program, it will probably be too late for you. You feel like you are being warehoused, that you’re disposable, and just waiting to die. Human beings need to feel hope and believe that there is a chance to make their lives better, a way out of the horrific situation they’re in. The low barrier shelter provides little to no help for someone who wants to turn their life around.

When someone is in the throes of a serious addiction they need quality treatment that doesn’t require them to jump through hoops that they are just too sick and too defeated to do.

The other obvious problem with a low barrier shelter is that the residents have few rules to live by, they have few consequences to deter them from verbally abusing staff or damaging property. In addiction treatment 101 this is called “enabling” and has been proven not to work and actually put the addict at increased risk of death.

If there are little to no rules to live by or consequences for anything you do, would you feel like a living breathing human being, would you feel valued, would you feel like anyone believes you can turn your life around? I think not, I think you would feel like you’re disposable and people around you are just waiting for you to die so some other poor soul can take your place.   

I understand that the frontline people working in the addiction and mental health fields in our city are doing the very best they can with the resources they have and I absolutely believe that shelters are a resource that is much needed in our community.

My problem is this: shelters, especially low barrier shelters, cannot be touted as the solution to our homeless problem, we can’t put “all our eggs in one basket” so to speak. I know that our City officials and mental health agency maintain that this is not being deemed a solution; however, if it isn’t being seen as a solution then they need to step up and put a lot more money into other resources such as low-income housing, addiction treatment and mental health programs because what we are doing is definitely not working for anyone, the homeless and the homed included.

Let’s stop patting ourselves on the back for this shelter and admit that it is not working and is, in fact, making things much worse for the citizens of North Bay and for the people who are coming from other cities to this shelter. Shelters must be temporary. Simply calling a shelter temporary or transitional, does not make it so. If the residents using the shelter perceive it as the end of the line, they will treat it, and their life, as such and that is very sad.

Words are only words, after all, action is what really matters. We need to put much more money into prevention. Common sense and research have shown us that we are more effective and more likely to succeed as helpers if we provide people with a means to help themselves and contribute to their own destiny before hopelessness and despair take hold.

Rita Hamilton, North Bay.




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