Front-line workers witness failure’s revolving door

  • March 2, 2023

There is an adage that to get off the streets you need a home, a job and a friend. The reality is that there are not enough affordable homes, few jobs open to those who are homeless and even fewer friends who are willing to walk the harsh streets to sustain hope in the darkness. 

I was thinking about this a month ago when I was accompanied on the street by Anne, whom I met 16 years ago, not long after I started on the streets. She quickly came to belong to my “friends” category, and through the years has progressed through the “home” and “job” categories to become a housing support worker with the lived experience of homelessness and addiction on the streets. To walk with Anne is to see the street through experienced eyes that have seen the tragic details that occur behind drawn curtains and closed doors. 

Housing support provides the front-line workers who are the essential link between those who have for many years been unhoused and the services they require to keep them housed. For those who have lived rough on the streets, and perhaps have a history of addiction and violence, this can be a traumatic transition.

It quickly became evident that for Anne housing support was not just a nine-to-five job. We had barely started on my usual route downtown when we walked by a bus stop. “Hey Joan,” she shouted out, “how are you doing these days? I have not seen you since I was your case worker.”

It was clear that Joan was not doing so well. “The government is after me for tax information,” she said. “I don’t know where I put it. I can’t use a computer like other people.” 

“Well, that’s easy enough to fix.” said Anne. “Here’s my card, give me a call in the morning and I’ll help you.” 

As we walked on, I remarked on the fact that for her, housing support seemed to be a way of life as well as a job. 

“I was one of them for 14 years for Heaven’s sake,” she said. “I’ve been out there, and I know what they are going through. I can’t just ignore them. But I don’t take any ‘bull’ from them either. A man last week said he had not been using drugs and inviting other addicts into his apartment. I just said to him, ‘Don’t lie to me. I’ve been there and done it all. I lied just like you, and I was no better at it than you are.’ ”

Yes, this was a tough lady that I was walking with, but she has a heart for the misery of the world, 

As we walked on, Anne pointed across the road. “See that building over there, one of my clients is in it, and he was being robbed by an addict who knew how to gain access to the building. Imagine that, preying on the most vulnerable. I asked around and found that others had been robbed by the same person, so I called the police on her. She’s not going to do that to my clients.”

Towards the end of the evening, we were deep into the area where drugs and addiction abound. Not surprisingly, Anne was well known from her street days, and was soon reminiscing with people about the bad-old-days and suggesting that perhaps it was time to get their act together. One particular lady remains on my mind. Her husband had died, and she was a grieving widow returning from his funeral. 

“Here is a picture of our son,” she said, as she fumbled in her wallet for us to admire him. 

Anne has known her for over 16 years, and although Anne has moved on, the grieving widow is still on the streets as an addict. As we walked on, Anne reminisced about her days on the street with the grieving widow. 

“It’s terrible what drugs do to a person, she said. “She is a grieving widow this evening, but when she has the drugs in her, she turns into a different person: abusive, belligerent and an absolute terror.”  

It was to support the need for more affordable housing, and for more front-line housing support workers, that Dominican Friar Prakash, representing Ripples of Kindness and other groups in the city, handed over a letter to the Office of the Mayor of Toronto calling for more housing and housing support workers. 

If we have housing without substantial funding for housing support workers, then it is doomed to be a revolving door of failure.

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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