The Politics of what it means to have a “Home”

In the last years that the York Hotel was open, it was known as one of “those” places – a tenement, a rooming house in the bad part of town, a magnet for crime (1200 calls to the police from the tavern there in the last year of operations). It was all of those things, as a quick web search will tell you.

But it was also a place people called ‘home’ – however tenuous that reality was, or how fragile their ability to keep a roof over their heads.

Over the years, I have heard a number of opinions about the homeless and marginally housed in this city – many of those opinions negative. The perceptions that people ‘choose’ to be on the street, or could improve their situation ‘if they worked at it’ are both common. I walked through those hallways and into those rooms and had to wonder: if the people who maintain those opinions were in the same straights as the people who lived in the York (or places like it), how would their opinions change?  What options would they have, all things being equal?

Alberta is a very rich province; regardless of the current financial woes the government currently maintains it is having – it’s still a rich province.  And that’s been part of the problem ironically; “boom” economies create inflated rents and housing shortages if they aren’t managed, and the people who are first to suffer are those at the low end of the income spectrum. If you have few places to choose from – or your options are reduced because of a range of other circumstances – you can wind up in a place like the York.


rent records from the York – that’s a lot of money every month … especially considering the place itself

According to the the Alberta Government, the major issues break down like this:

“Each community has unique dynamics that impact the size and character of its homeless population, but we know the homeless population is diverse. For instance, recent studies provide a point-in-time snapshot of the homeless in Alberta:
• 14% of homeless are living on the street;
• 40% have some form of mental health problem;
• 50% have some history of substance abuse;
• 25% are employed;
• 10% are young adults;
• 11% are families with school age children;

There is also a large population of “hidden” homeless comprised largely of women, youth and families. These are homeless Albertans who avoid the homeless-serving system, often out of fear of authorities. Research will be needed to assess the impact this group has on the inflow of new homeless into the homeless-serving system.

In addition, many more Albertans are considered “at risk” of becoming homeless. That is, they spend more than 30% of their income on housing. [italics mine]

Some of these Albertans will fall into homelessness.

(Source: P. 6)

None of the issues listed above as factors in homelessness are easy to tackle on their own; that they often occur in combination with one another only makes the problem more complex. I think it’s important to note that a full 25% of the people listed as homeless here are employed.

Here’s a graphic from the US that reveals a slightly different, but equally disturbing breakdown:

causes of homelessness

I wonder how the numbers and categories of reasons for homelessness could (or will) shift here in Alberta to be more like those in the States if there’s a marked and sustained slowdown in the economy out here?  How many people here live paycheque to paycheque and with a debt burden in excess of their income? How many people are dealing with excessive levels of stress that could lead to depression, physical illness, or job loss that could put them at risk of needing a place like the York to call home?

– sydney