Sharing our blessings

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, December 2015

This Christmas season, let’s envision our city as an inn that truly has room for everyone.

One of the most enduring symbols of Christmas is that of a vulnerable young family taking refuge from the desert night in a lowly stable. According to the narration in the ancient holy scrolls, the family found itself relegated to the bleak outbuilding because, “There was no room at the inn.” 

We’ll never know whether the lack of vacancy was based on a genuine shortage of space. Maybe the family was turned away for lack of means to pay, or perhaps it fell short of the innkeeper’s entrenched standards for his guests. What we do know is that the iconic image of a poor young couple and their newborn baby nestled among a menagerie of farm animals still resonates with so many of us, more than 20 centuries later. 

We’ve long known that a lack of proper shelter is a devastating burden. We don’t need to experience it ourselves to grasp how incessantly it grinds down on every aspect of life. Imagine trying to stay physically and mentally robust without a safe and protected place to call home, especially at this dreary, bone-chilling time of year. Imagine trying to deflect the sharp indifference of a society that banters around the myriad chicken-and-egg theories on homelessness but invariably still funnels them all to the conviction that a homeless person is, first and foremost, a chronic drain on the taxpayer. 

We have plenty of homeless people in our city. On a winter’s night in 2014 the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness counted more than 1100 individuals— including 70 families and 116 children—in temporary or emergency shelters. Many are trapped there by the burdens of mental health and addiction issues that, in addition to poverty, keep them excluded from “mainstream” society. Some fall into the category of the working poor, although by no means is this category limited to those who use shelters. Many of the working poor stay precariously balanced on the threshold between indoors and outdoors by living in their car or couch surfing with family or friends—not just Downtown but also in your neighbourhood and mine. 

It’s true that homelessness annually costs us millions of dollars in crisis and other services, not to mention all the other ways in which misery on the streets exacts its toll. A police officer I know sees the same faces over and over again, cycling through the hospital for crisis care and through the city jail when life hits an especially rough patch. He knows what the rest of us are slowly figuring out—that these emergency interventions are both the costliest and most ineffectual strategies available, the priciest band-aids on wounds that will never heal. 

The Coalition has estimated that it would take 1000 permanent housing units to shelter everyone in need of a home. Because lack of resources make that a pipe dream, it seems to be focusing on the 367 people who've been deemed chronically homeless. But imagine the boon for us all if we had 1000 new homes ready to accommodate everyone in need. Getting them built or procured would cost us a bundle in the short run, no question, but in the long run they could well be the best investment we make in our community.

Simon Fraser University has crunched those numbers. A 2008 study conservatively estimates that the combined costs of emergency and other services in health, policing, sheltering and all the fallouts associated with addictions and mental illness average 55,000 public dollars per homeless person annually. The cost to permanently house that person, with supports if necessary, is $37,000 per year. Based on those figures, 1000 units, once built and occupied, would realize an annual savings of at least $18 million. Yes, annual. Think of the many ways we could re-invest that into our city’s well-being.

The magic of Christmas is that even as a secular celebration it persistently retains some vestige of a higher purpose. Come December it never fails to awaken in us a desire to share our blessings and help make the world a better place. 

Perhaps this year the plight and hope of the first Christmas family might inspire us to keep a candle in the window for neighbours still awaiting their own safe home. Perhaps it might spur us to envision our city as an inn from which beacons of comfort and security radiate far into the night. An inn that truly has room for everyone.

Trudy and Focus wish everyone a joyous and peaceful Christmas season.