At least one person who works directly with the homeless says the Housing First strategy spearheaded by the Alberta government and used in Red Deer isn’t effective.
Berachah Place co-ordinator Millard MacDonald said on Tuesday that Housing First doesn’t address addictions and mental health, both issues that are prevalent among the homeless.
“They need to deal with addictions and mental health issues first,” said MacDonald, adding that putting people into housing first doesn’t deal with those issues, which aren’t going to disappear.
“They (the homeless) need to get well before they can be housed.”
The issue is much greater than simply providing housing, he said. Homelessness is much more substantive than not having a place to live.
“We have probably 10 people die a year because of a drug overdose,” said MacDonald.
The homeless who get into shelters in Red Deer — Safe Harbour or People’s Place — usually must leave early in the morning. Some go to Berachah Place, a safe space for the homeless to relax, have a shower, do their laundry and have lunch.
Nestled between downtown nightclubs in Red Deer, the Turning Point building has the office of the Central Alberta AIDS Network on the main floor and Berachah Place in the basement.
Downstairs, there are lockers for people to store their possessions in the hallway that leads to some tables, a small kitchen and separate rooms, some for showers, others for laundry.
Later in the morning, people come in, some drink coffee, others watch a movie. People catch up with friends, talk, step outside for a cigarette.
Others are sleeping in a corner after a long night or, if they’re lucky enough, stake a claim to the floor in front of the TV with their sleeping bag and rest.
One of them, Samuel Tologanak, has been on the streets for almost 30 years, and for the past few years, in Red Deer.
He sleeps where he can, panhandles a little, picks up empty bottles and does what he can to get by. He said it takes $20 to $30 a day, sometimes less, for him to get a cup of coffee and something to eat.
He said he goes to different “cubby-holes” to sleep, places to keep the wind out. When he gets up in the morning, he goes for breakfast at the Potters Hand’s Ministries downtown.
The 53-year-old comes to the Berachah Place regularly. He showers there a couple of times a week and does what laundry he has in the cart that he pushes around with him. Three times, he’s had his cart stolen with all his possessions, including his sleeping bag and his bag of clothes, leaving him to start over.
“I have no idea why anybody would take it. Maybe they need it more than I do,” said Tologanak, adding it does frustrate him because he has to start over again.
“Sometimes it is hard, but I’m thankful for this place (Berachah) so I can get a clothing voucher.”
He has lost the hearing in his left ear and the glasses he wears don’t match his prescription. As he talks, he tosses his frozen bottle of Gatorade in his hands.
His nickname is Mr. Miyagi, in part he says because he looks similar to the character from the 1980s movie The Karate Kid.
“I prefer on the street because it is a little more quieter, there’s not much hassle,” said Tologanak. “There is a lot of fresh air.”
Home for Tologanak is Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a small community of about 1,400 people in the Canadian north. His family is there, but he said there is a lack of housing for him to go home.
“I had a job up there, but I had to keep moving around.”
He said he isn’t a regular user of drugs or alcohol and only drinks beer or smokes pot.
“I hardly use it and it’s not the reason I’m on the street.”
He has tried to get housing before.
“I have to talk to one of the housing co-ordinators,” he said. “But I’m thinking of maybe just staying on the street because I find I like it a lot better.”
He said Red Deerians can misunderstand the homeless.
“There should be more help, instead of just talking.”