Homelessness – We Don’t Need Experience To Take Action

mobile recreational vehicle kitted out to screen for breast cancer
Mobile health services make it easier to access health care and other supports. This one screens for breast cancer.

What is it like to be homeless? Even if they want to know, people who have housing may have limited opportunities to find out. This post offers two perspectives, one from Ontario and another from British Columbia.

In Ontario, a group of researchers interviewed 179 people who were living outdoors in Peel Region, which flanks Toronto’s western boundary. The survey responses were compiled to provide a composite view from the individuals who took part. One of the people who answered the survey said they moved three times per night in order to stay safe, which suggests that survival is top of mind.

The people who answered the questions also talked about what had led to their homelessness. The majority of these comments identify individual circumstances. Considering the large role that social policy has had and continues to play in creating homelessness, it didn’t show up often in the comments.

The survey also asked people about what they need to leave homelessness behind. At this point, the ideas turn to focus on changing systems. The respondents identified housing that they could afford, a way to pay for it (employment and/or adequate levels of social assistance) as well as supports to help find housing and to stay in it once obtained. That’s a tough haul on your own. One person described it this way:

“[We need] a restructured social services system. In order to be stable, I need a job and if someone chooses to employ me despite my appearance, my inability to provide contact information, my lack of transportation or [my] inability to feed myself and take care of myself; if despite ALL of those factors I get a job, welfare will take 50% of it, and then my rent will take 30% of it which will continue to entrap me in survival.

“If I get hurt [or] lose my job  …  or get a fine or get a ticket, [it] will cause me to lose everything and start back from the street waiting on another miracle. It’s so vicious.”

Which brings us to the second story, which is about one support that could help people who are homeless.

If someone who is homeless needs dental treatment, there aren’t a lot of options for help. Most dental work is not covered by public health insurance programs. Lori Culburt, writing in the Vancouver Sun, discusses ways that people are working to change that.

First, there is a bus offering mobile outreach dental service on a regular schedule. The funding for the bus, and the staff who operate it, comes from the local public health authority, which has deemed dental care a public health issue.

The hygienists who provide care on the bus extend an arm of support to homeless people who need it. Sometimes the hygienists find someone to provide unfunded dental treatment (eg. extractions, root canals) at no charge. Other times, there is no dentistry. The hygienists listen to whatever the ‘patient’ is dealing with. With the patient’s permission, the hygienists reach out to other services that provide the specific assistance a patient is looking for. Over and over, starting by listening has led to connections with existing services and supports, including moving to permanent housing.

The same article also includes comments from two dental experts about the publicly funded dental program that the Canadian government plans to expand in 2024. The program is currently operating as a pilot on a small scale and details of the expanded program are still being worked out. The experts look at the mobile dental service and other publicly funded dental care systems to pinpoint what would make the expanded federal dental care plan most effective for people who need it the most.

Not all of us are dental hygienists or dental experts, but does that mean we can’t help? Back in Peel region, during the survey of people who are homeless, one respondent said:

“[We need] help from anyone who has the capacity (a voice) that’s heard and respected throughout the community because homelessness is a pandemic.”

Readers, the opportunity is open.

The survey of people who are homeless in Peel region is posted on line by the Peel Poverty Action Group: Peel Poverty Action Group (PPAG) Encampments Survey Report

Lori Culbert’s article was published in the Vancouver Sun: This dental hygienist’s office is a van, and her young clients are often homeless