Do We See the Unhoused in Our Neighbourhood?

 on February 2, 2024

I serve a community in Burlington that is considered a comfortable and attractive place to live, and for the most part that’s certainly true. St. Luke’s was founded in 1834, has an exquisite interior and is set in green and picturesque land. There are a number of fairly well-off people in the community and many of them are extremely socially conscious and generous. They need to be because, contrary to what some might believe, this city—just like any other in the diocese or the country for that matter—contains the poor, the unemployed, the hungry, and the homeless. Our church’s regular community lunches are always full—when we open the doors each week to distribute food, the line is long. Then there are those who cannot find a place to live.

One woman came to see us recently. She is in her mid-40s, intelligent and alert, with some minor mental-health challenges. Covered in a plastic sheet to keep her dry, she was wheeling a large suitcase containing all she owned. She’d slept several nights in local bus shelters, sat in libraries or coffee bars in the day, and spent her time phoning or visiting places to find work or a roof over her head. She spoke highly of the local police, who were supposed to move her along when they saw her sleeping outside—but knew she had nowhere else to go. When I drive to church early on a Sunday morning, I always see people asleep in shelters. This, in one of the more affluent cities in Canada.

She asked whether we could help her. She explained that she’d contacted shelter after shelter in Burlington but they were all full. I said I’d try and started to call them again. She was right. I then extended the search to Oakville and Mississauga. Nothing. Surely Hamilton had something. Rejection after rejection. “I’m really sorry,” said one worker who answered the phone. “You can call others, but I’m telling you that there are just no vacancies.”

Another shelter manager: “We recommend that you look further afield. Perhaps try Owen Sound.” I said that it was 200 kilometres away, that this person had no money and no transport, and that if she got there and found nowhere to stay, she’d be in an even worse state. There was a pause. “Yes, I see what you mean.”

We ended up giving her some cash, which we seldom do, and some cards to use at local stores, which we often do. I felt like such a failure. It’s difficult to keep tabs on people, and I’m ashamed to say I’ve lost contact with her. Her story, alas, is far from unusual.

Many people sleeping wherever they can—sometimes in shelters, when they’re lucky— have physical or mental-health issues or rely on long-term government support. But not all. I know people who are working, even full-time, who simply can’t afford an apartment. And because shelters are so often full, they use tents to find a minimal degree of privacy. Some have had breakdowns or experienced family tragedies, others have just been smashed by circumstances that I guarantee are not so far from me or you.

I asked one of the people we help whether Toronto was any easier. “Yes and no,” he said. “I have a job here, even though the money isn’t great. I can’t risk losing that. There are more shelters and places in Toronto, but more people, too. There’s another thing.” He takes a deep breath. “There are angry people in some of those places, and, to be honest, they frighten me. I’d rather be cold than scared.”

Being cold is, of course, a genuine danger in Ontario as we approach another winter. Cities issue weather warnings and open public venues for those living outside—but that’s temporary and inadequate. A few hours in January temperatures can be fatal. But more than this, everyone deserves a place they can call home. While it doesn’t have to be grand, it must be secure and stable.

I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but I know from experience that many good and kind people aren’t aware of how common the unhoused problem is. They don’t realize how many of those we might assume go home each night to sanctuaries of love actually spend the night on the streets in the company of indifference or even danger. Shelters help, but we need more, and the demand will only increase. They’re also a temporary response when what is needed is a long-term solution. Affordable housing is vital, and that means a fundamental shift in government policy at all levels. I’m just not sure if the political (and public) will is there.

We’re a prosperous province in prosperous country, and we even sometimes boast of being “the greatest country in the world.” I’m not sure what the unhoused people I know would say to that, but I do think that any nation should be measured on how it treats its most vulnerable, and I know that such a view is hardly exclusively Christian. But if Jesus teaches us anything it’s that God’s image is in everyone and often particularly so in those who suffer and struggle.

  • Michael Coren

    The Reverend Michael Coren is the author of 18 books, several of them best-sellers, translated into a dozen languages. He hosted daily radio and TV shows for almost 20 years, and is now a Contributing Columnist for the Toronto Star, and appears regularly in the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Oldie, ipaper, TVOntario, The New Statesman, and numerous other publications in Canada and Britain. He has won numerous award and prizes across North America. He is a priest at St. Luke’s, Burlington. His latest book is The Rebel Christ.

    [email protected]
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