Anyone familiar with the third Season of Homeland may remember lead character Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, finding himself in a decrepid highrise somewhere in Venezuala. What you might not know is that there is such a place, and it’s known as the Torre of David, or The Tower of David. Construction on the 45 story Centro Financiero Confinanzas began in 1990, but ended abruptly in 1994 before it was completed as a result of the Venezualan banking crisis.
Soon after, an estimated 2000 impoverished families moved in to squat inside the unfinished building, in order to build a new life for themselves. They somehow managed a jerry-rigged system of utilities that included both water and electricity. A number of bodegas sprang up. There were also day cares, internet cafes, hair salons. Even a dentist set up shop. Photographer Alejandro Cegarra managed to capture this underground commune with some incredible images, featured throughout this story.
Then, just last year, Operation Zamora rolled in. The tower was deemed unsafe to live in. It wasn’t just the kids that had accidentally fallen off the building. Despite the well organized community, there were rumours of ties to organized crime. The government sent in soldiers to evacuate the building’s residents and re-locate them to a housing project. The tower still stands today, although it’s future, like that of it’s residents’ children, remains unclear.
Almost four thousand miles North of the Torre of David, in the city of Toronto, it’s slightly colder than it is in Caracas. And, even though our climate may be vastly different, the issue of homelessness is something we share in common.
This winter alone, three homeless men have died as a direct result of sub-zero temperatures in a series of extreme cold weather blasts; one in a bus shelter wearing only a t-shirt, the other inside an abandoned van. Just last week a man had burned alive after trying to keep warm in a makeshift shelter behind a concrete making facility. With a new Mayor behind the reigns, eager to repair his city’s image, the deaths have re-ignited debate on how to solve the age old enigma.
The knee jerk reaction is a call to build more shelters. But ask anyone on the street why they choose to take their chances elsewhere and you’ll get a fistful of answers, almost as varied as the coins made from a panhandler’s daily take. They’re dirty, dangerous places, they’ll say, you’re more likely to be assaulted or robbed inside a shelter than outside. Not to mention the rampant alcohol and drug use.
So what’s the alternative?
Multiple studies have stated that there is a clear path to end homelessness. The answer lies in long term housing, alongside access to training programs and addiction counselling. Not only does providing housing help people off the streets, it actually costs less doing so. The costs of a shelter bed per year far exceeds the cost of a self contained longterm apartment.
If the solution to the homeless crisis is in front of us, why don’t we go for it? Here are some compelling reasons why solving it is in all of our best interests.
1. Less crime. It stands to reason that if homeless people are off the streets, and provided food and shelter, but most importantly, also have access to treatment programs for addiction, anger management, or for other health and mental issues, there would a reduction in robberies to feed addictions, fewer assaults, etc.
2. Less health related illnesses. If the homeless are given stable, long term housing, they should have better access to health care. Regular check ups would mean preventative diseases can be caught earlier, before they get more serious, and end up costing the health care system more.
3. More hospital beds. Currently homeless people account for a high number of emergency beds, adding to an already heavily burdened system. A study put forward by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that Homeless residents also end up staying longer in hospital, which each visit costing more than non-homeless residents. If they had better access to health care, hospitals would be less burdened.
4. It makes good economic sense. Having the homeless off the streets would lessen the burden on law enforcement, the justice system and health care management. With re-training and education programs, housing the homeless would allow a formally disenfranchised sector to become productive members of society. Either by being hired across many sectors of business, or, by starting their very own businesses; it’s ultimately beneficial to our economy as a whole. Just ask Frank O’Dea, a former homeless man, who would one day go on to become founder of Second Cup.
5. There is a moral obligation to do so. In a so-called world class city in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, how can we casually walk over frozen bodies on our way to the local Starbucks?
6. We already have a plan of strategy ready to implement. In 2006, The Wellesley Institute, a local non-partisan, non-profit think tank developed a detailed Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto based on 30 years of comprehensive research. Instead of pretending to deal with the issue by throwing money at another study, it’s time to dust off and implement a feasible course of action that’s been sitting on a shelf for far too long.
It’s more than likely that no current government wants to step up to the plate and build the housing we need to get the program in place. We’d rather spend 709 million dollars building housing for the Pan Am games’ athletes, than pursue this crazy idea. But imagine if we did. Imagine becoming a city without any homeless people.
It may not be such an impossible dream. South of the border, two cities are well on their way to doing just that. Salt Lake City, in Utah, and Phoenix, Arizona have both almost completely managed to provide housing for homeless veterans. In a city dubbed “the best place in the world to live”, courtesy of The Economist, shouldn’t we represent the innovative benchmark for tackling social problems, and lead this country by example?
Unfortunately, for the moment, we’ll have the cold comfort that 90 new shelters have been temporarily added by renting out 20 motel rooms in the city’s West end. The proposed 2015 budget for the City of Toronto will include funding for 100 new shelter spaces and 2 drop in centers for women. On paper it sounds good. The unfortunate reality though, is that it’s more of the continued band-aid style solution for a problem that has not improved over the years, and is not going away any time soon.
In the interim, all we can hope for is for warmer temperatures, and people to come in from the cold.
If you live in Canada, and you’d like to help get involved in the fight to end homelessness, you can check out the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Join their Facebook page here.
If you are in the US, check out the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Join their Facebook page here.
If you’re in Europe, check out FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless. Facebook page here.