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BLOG (Larson Heinonen): Shelter? No Thanks, I’d Rather Go To Jail

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
The Salvation Army shelter in Sudbury. (Photo by Larson Heinonen)
The Salvation Army shelter in Sudbury. (Photo by Larson Heinonen)

Now that the mercury in Ontario Cities has sunk to -30 and, in some cases, -40 Celsius, the usual experts on Homelessness have come out with their predictable solution – shelters. Shelters are what is needed. I have read some Sociology books so, therefore, I know what is needed. There are several reasons why Shelters, as they presently are, are a very poor solution.

It is appalling that in a society that professes to be civilized, the rights, health and well-being of poor and sick people merit such a frighteningly low priority. Those in need of help, in our country, get very little help and are often treated worse than criminals in jail. Shelters are supposed to be temporary until they (Politicians) come up with a solution. I don’t want to appear to rush you, but we have been waiting for decades, maybe it’s time to finally come up with this solution you promised. People are freezing to death out there.

It is not good enough to build an other Shelter, think we have done something and pat each on the back for job well done and then walk away. What is needed is something long-term. I can think of many and not one them involves building a Shelter.

What is needed is an increase in OW rates and ODSP rates. At present, people receive assistance that is totally inadequate. Every human needs proper nutrition and enough to pay rent for a real home. They do need Shelters, soup kitchens, Food banks…etc.

Those well-meaning but ignorant busy-bodies who say that what is needed is Shelters – it is not only at times of cold snaps, cold weather just provides them with an occasion to voice their agenda – Shelters are not only a very poor solution to this problem, but it takes as away from doing something that really could help.

I believe Mike Harris’s draconian and inhumane decision to kick patients out of Psychiatric Hospitals is still, after all these years, being felt in Ontario. Mike Harris managed to do more harm to vulnerable people in this province than anyone else. Unfortunately, most anti-poverty don’t see mental illness as a major contributor to Homelessness. I, and others who know about Homelessness, would assign it top spot. A member of Sudbury’s own S-CAP told me it’s not even a major cause. It is this kind of, ‘’out of touch’’ mind-set that has made them the self-appointed defenders of the poor, sick and Homeless. Much of what they do is of questionable value and their methods certainly are. Don’t get me wrong, I do think the idea of Shelters is good. It’s the management and operation of Shelters I object to. I think S-CAP and other anti-poverty groups would do more good if they concentrated on getting OW and ODSP rates increased – S-CAP has done this in the past and I believe it’s on their agenda for future actions. What S-CAP has never done nor do they plan to do is demanding more beds in Psychiatric Hospitals.

Shelters have been around for decades and I cannot think of one I would send a human being to. I have been to several across the country, and consider them all to be places of recruitment of a local Christian church, they are violent, drugs and Alcohol use is rampant and they are veritable incubators of disease. They are worse than jails.

Mike Harris’s now infamous cuts to just about everything unleashed scores of low function people to the streets. This has proven to be disastrous. These people were in a hospital for a very good reason – they are sick and can’t look after themselves. You can now see them in all-night coffee shops and, in the day time, rummaging through garbage cans for food. Occasionally they end up in Shelters where they are threatened, bullied, stolen from, ridiculed and often beaten up. Because Politicians, Churches and Anti-Poverty groups are ignorant of what really goes on in Shelters they think Shelters are a good solution.

Shelters are usually managed, “owned“ and operated by the municipality they are in. In theory anyway. In reality, they are run by Ad Hoc groups or gangs of twenty something thugs who victimize other residents. You have probably heard the saying, “Inmates are in charge of the Asylum“. This does not only apply to Psychiatric Hospitals and Jails but Shelters as well. Because Shelters are usually pits of violence, drugs and disease, is it good idea to ask for more Shelters?

Because they are inadequately funded they can only attract young, naïve, idealistic – often students to work in them as volunteers or those willing to work for minimum wage. These youngsters are ill-equipped and too inexperienced to do what is asked of them.

All shelters, soup kitchens and other services are managed and operated by a local church, except the Salvation Army. Since the Salvation Army Shelter on Larch St. is run by Salvation Army staff, it is only logical to assume that residents there get a very large dose of Salvation Army’s brand of Christian hatred for anyone who is not like them. The Samaritan Centre on Elgin St. is staffed by Glad Tidings members. I worked there for a year before I quit because I was offended by hearing that poverty, hard times, homelessness, despair…etc. can only be ended by attending church more often, attending prayer meetings and just plain praying all the time. I should be glad that God chose Glad Tidings in Sudbury to give the keys to heaven to, but I’m not. Joking aside, Homelessness is a serious social Issue, no amount of praying is going to make it go away. Most Shelters are administered by a local Church and many require residents to attend Church, Bible study, prayers before a meal. It begs the question, ’’What if the person needing help is not Christian?’’ Do I have to pretend to be a Christian to get a bed?

If forced indoctrination is not enough to turn you off Shelters, how about this? Many years ago, circumstances forced me to stay at the Seaton house (Seaton House is a large City run Shelter in Toronto) in Toronto. During my first night there, I was awakened about 3:00 AM by somebody repeatedly punching me in the face. I awoke and managed to yell and run the assailant away. I told a worker what had happened but she did not as much as tell the assailant not to do that. Calling an Ambulance or the Police was not even mentioned. The person who attacked me was not even kicked out. I was told to wash the blood off my face so the worker’s boss wouldn’t see my face in the morning. I was not going to stay in a Shelter that allows sleeping residents to be attacked, and Seaton House’s only concern is their reputation. I left. Several hours after leaving, I lost consciousness and somebody took me to the Hospital. I woke up in the ICU with all kinds of tubes and needles going into me. Somehow the Hospital got a hold of my Family because I wasn’t expected to make it out of there alive. But I lived and was transferred to a regular room in the morning. The point of telling you this is to tell you that Shelters are violent and also because they have to rely on volunteers and untrained minimum wage workers, usually the only rules that are obeyed and enforced are those made by the residents. Official staff have limited very little say in how the place is run.

Too often groups that demand more Shelters be built, have very little knowledge of what a Shelter actually is. Anti-poverty groups often think that their involvement ends after City Council is convinced to be on board. This shouldn’t be so. If, in this case S-CAP, there is to be a permanent Shelter in Sudbury, S-CAP should be made to manage and operate it. It is their idea after all.

Homeless people are very transient. A person in a Shelter in Toronto or Calgary will eventually end up in Sudbury if he finds out there is a Shelter here. Because the Salvation Army Shelter is just down the street from my home, I often talk to the residents when I go by, I know many by name and have learned what they do and where they are from. Since Corrections Canada and Probation and Parole Officers direct their charges to the closest Shelter, Shelters have a very high number of Parolees among them. I wonder if S-CAP is aware of this.

I am always on the side of a Homeless person and I think a temporary Shelter in this extremely cold weather is a good idea. What I object to is establishing a permanent Shelter here, thus providing a home for Criminals.

S-CAP has been very effective in convincing City Hall to change policies that negatively impact poor and voiceless people. Kudos to S-CAP for what they have done. However, I think they should drop this Shelter thing and stick to what they know and are good at. You are out of your league here.

To combat Homelessness successfully, a raise in OW and ODSP rates is needed and more beds in Psychiatric Hospitals is needed, in other words, what inhumane and ruthless Mike Harris did years ago needs to be undone. O-CAP (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) and it’s local branch, S-CAP has for many years pushed for more Shelter beds. Shelters have not done any good in the past and, I’m sure, never will. OCAP has done great work on behalf of poor people but they should not lose credibility by asking for a Shelter that does only harm.

As I mentioned before, I have enjoyed the hospitality of many Shelters across the country, many jails too. All Shelters are bad. If given a choice, I would choose jail.

I think a temporary Shelter is needed to get street people into a warm place for the night. Whether it’s the lobby of Tom Davies as S-CAP suggests or somewhere else, it doesn’t matter. However, a permanent Shelter should never be established here.

Larson Heinonen is a Sudbury-based artist, photographer, and writer. This post originally appeared at Larson's Gallery.

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