Lisa Helps, mayor of Victoria, BC, opened herself up to a huge amount of scorn and derision this past month when she suggested on her blog that a billeting system might be a way for the city to address the mounting homelessness crisis caused by a an almost 30-year gap in purpose-built apartments, a lack of affordable housing programs and an influx of 6,000 new residents arriving in the last five years. She cited the 1940s’ example of private citizens opening their homes to people who relocated to Victoria to help the war effort and returning veterans. By most accounts, this was a successful project in its day.
While there have been some positive comments and support for the project, including volunteers for the three-person focus group proposed to test the program, it has also drawn a torrent of negativity and sometimes outright vitriol from those who do not support the idea. Many are quick to point out that participants in the original billeting project were not entrenched homeless. This project, many say, is a ridiculous Band-Aid on an injury that should be addressed at a higher level, led by the government and not private citizens.
While I will point out that the target of the currently proposed billeting system is the 'hidden homeless' and not those who are street entrenched, meaning the people couch surfing or sleeping in their cars rather than the long-time homeless who are sleeping on streets and in parks, I do not for an instant contest the idea that a billeting system should be completely unnecessary. Nor do I dispute the claim that we need more accessible housing and better outreach for our homeless population than it could possibly provide. I am not interested in defending the provincial or the federal government’s approaches to homelessness or the policy required to make significant change in this area. At least, not in this article.
What I want to talk about is the idea of the billeting system itself, and whether or not there is any precedent for believing it will make a significant impact on homelessness in our city. I believe it will, and I don’t believe Mayor Helps has to go all the way back to the 1940s to understand why.
Instead, I would direct her attention to the Nightstop program, which began in the 1980s in Leeds, England. This program, in which private residences open their doors for the night to youth in crisis, has since expanded to 30 British cities and made its Canadian debut in the York area of Ontario. Nightstop gives youth who have had to leave their homes or who have aged out of the foster system a safe place to sleep for the night as well as some basic hygiene facilities like showers and laundry, which many youth who are living in cars, couch surfing or staying in shelters just don’t have reliable access to.
Youth homelessness is in many ways a unique social issue that differs from adult homelessness. A large survey of homeless youth in Canada and the US reported that up to 70% left their homes or foster care because they were the victims of violence. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that 61% of homeless girls and 16% of homeless boys leave home because of sexual violence. Furthermore, LGBT people represent a disproportionately large portion—21 to 42%—of this population, compared to 1-3% generally, and it is estimated that a little less than half that number become homeless when they are forced out of their homes because of their sexuality or gender identity.
Homeless youth are some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens. They are at a much higher risk of violent or sexual assaults and being trafficked than are their housed peers, and the lack of stability that afflicts them once they leave home makes conventional things like finishing school or keeping a job next to impossible. The Nightstop program has helped them by providing the most basic human necessities in a stable environment. A young person who can get a good night’s sleep in a safe place, and begin every day with a shower, clean clothes and even a filling breakfast, experiences much less stress, anxiety and mental health issues that have been shown to perpetuate and intensify the cycle of homelessness.
A major problem that has always hampered Canada’s attempt to address the homeless crisis is the focus on triage—on treating the homeless problem when it has reached the point where it can no longer be ignored. When people are dying in massive numbers of overdoses in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver or camping out in droves on a courthouse lawn, that’s when it receives our attention. This approach has been ineffective in dealing with the root causes of homelessness, it’s expensive, and it ultimately doesn’t serve the best interests of anyone involved.
Programs like Nightstop have demonstrated that when you intercede before a person in crisis becomes actively homeless you can interrupt the cycle before it begins, ultimately saving money for the average taxpaying citizen and preventing a host of trauma and health issues for the person in crisis. A billeting system that focuses on people in crisis who have not become entrenched homeless and has a particularly strong focus on our most vulnerable citizens cannot be dismissed. If a program like Nightstop could be implemented here as a part of the mayor’s billeting idea—and if it’s even half as successful in preventing young people from becoming homeless in Victoria as it has been in England—we can't afford to dismiss it.