Hep C / HIV / homelessness / prison

Checking into the “Homeless Hilton”

by Bill O’Leary


There is a clear connection and relationship between the issues of homelessness and imprisonment. This relationship is forged on false understandings held by the community, mainstream media portrayals that feed this understanding, and the ongoing criminalization and containment of people experiencing homelessness that supports the view that homelessness warrants institutionalization.  If it is generally accepted by the community that our shelter and prison systems are “working” and the needs of those people involved in these systems are being met, then the “problem” of homelessness must be the individual. People experiencing homelessness and people experiencing imprisonment share a great deal of commonality and there is a shared view among community members that shelters and prisons are equipped to meet the needs of people that are experiencing homelessness which furthers the agenda of  criminalization, and containment, of the homelessness crisis in Canada.

Before exploring the points in paragraph one I will first define and give context to the terms I will be using. The term “homelessness” is referring to people that are living on the street, in a shelter or in places not meant for human habitation; a term often used in reference to people experiencing these living conditions is ‘visibly homeless’. Mentioned only briefly (but directly connected and impacted) are the “hidden homeless”; these are the people who are sheltered in unsafe, insecure and unaffordable housing conditions. There are 400,000 people across Canada who are considered to be experiencing “hidden homelessness” and are living in crowded and unsafe housing where upwards of 50% of their income is spent on rent (Housing vulnerability and health: Canada’s hidden emergency, 2010). I will discuss the prison system but I will not be breaking this down in terms of jails, correctional centers and penitentiaries; I will use the term prison to speak to all who are held against their will. Statistics/examples will cross between Municipal, Provincial and Federal; I ask for you to indulge me this due to the complexity of the issues connected with homelessness and imprisonment.

A general opinion held by many in the community is that shelters provide warm, hygienic, sleeping environments where meals and a sympathetic social worker are awaiting the service user. This understanding is propagated by mainstream media when considering titles cast on shelters, such as the “Homeless Hilton”; the “Homeless Hilton” is a magical shelter that will permit “street people” to access “Cadillac” service that has cost tax payers $15 million. This last point (cost) indicates how we find ourselves in a position to blame the person experiencing homelessness. If the tax payer is providing services such as those found in the “Homeless Hilton” then who is at fault for homelessness; if the service user is not able to “pull up their boot straps” with such services available in Toronto then they must be at fault.

If a person fails to flourish under such great services being provided for them then the containment type thinking moves to the next obvious choice; containment within a prison system. The Canadian prison system is designed to be more directive in its approach towards “helping” the homeless person. It is likely the reader is picking up on my sarcasm but if that is not occurring I should be clear that I am a human rights activist that makes no differentiation between who is a human being or what rights should be respected/protected.

Is prison the next “logical” step for people who do not flourish in our shelter system? The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, wants all “homeless people” found outdoors during the winter months off the street and put in shelters. If a person is to be robbed of their liberty by order of the mayor but refuses to enter into the shelter system then we have a person who will require the more directive approach offered by the prison system. The public understands prison as a place that will provide warm, hygienic, sleeping environments where meals and a sympathetic social worker are awaiting the service user; you will find this point earlier in the description of the views held in relation to the shelter system but are they not, in many ways, one in the same? Can the reader say they have never heard the logic of the tax payer in the utterance “well at least when they’re in prison they have a roof over their head and they get three square meals a day”? The media supports this propaganda by allotting titles such as “Club Fed” when discussing prisons and creates the illusion that we have safely tucked away our homeless people. Unfortunately in the world we live in it is easier for people to access prison then it is for them to access safe affordable housing.

People experiencing the shelter system and the prison system have a great deal in common but one population stands out as over-represented in both and warrants particular attention; the Aboriginal community. Aboriginal people make up only 3% of the Canadian population but account for 26% of the federal prisoner population and, in the Prairie Provinces, Aboriginal people account for 77% of the prison population. Do these statistics demonstrate that Aboriginal people are more ‘criminal’?

The majority of Canadians fail to understand, nor does mainstream media speak to, colonization, residential schools, the 1960’s scoop in which many Aboriginal children were removed from their homes by child services, the effects of on-going colonization and the abuse children suffered in residential schools and being ripped away from their families with their culture being eroded at every turn. Specifically focusing on the Aboriginal community is necessary due to the over-representation in both the prisoner population as well as in the number of people from this community experiencing homelessness in the city of Toronto. In the 2009 Street Needs Assessment 15.4% of participants self-identified as Aboriginal; this number is contextualized when we understand that only 1% of the population in Toronto is Aboriginal.

At this point I must draw attention to “myths” we associate with prison and the supports offered to prisoners upon their release. The majority of the community (aided by mainstream media) lives in the illusion that people in prison are violent and unmanageable; statistically 86% of people in prison are there for non-violent offences; people imprisoned for violent offences make up less than 1% of the prison population.  It is homelessness, as opposed to violence, that is the common thread shared by many people in prison. John Howard Society of Toronto conducted a research study  with 363 male prisoners and findings on pre-custody living arrangements demonstrated that 13.7% lived in a room (shared/unshared) and 22.9% were homeless (shelter, street, couch surfing). The same report indicated that the living situation post custody for these 363 men demonstrates that 12.4% did not know where they would stay, 7.7% would live in a room and 32.2% would be homeless (shelter, street, couch surfing). An overview of these statistics (sad that I need to resort to “numbers” to prove validity) demonstrates that of the 363 participants 83 were homeless prior to imprisonment where as 117 will be homeless once released.

What are the similarities of overall health between a person experiencing homelessness and a person who has been imprisoned in Canada? A sample of 1200 people experiencing homelessness (600 visibly homeless; 600 hidden homeless) demonstrated that 52% reported a past diagnosis of a mental health issue (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia); 30% of the participants are HCV/HBV positive; 6% of the participants are HIV positive. Relatable statistics demonstrate that 26% of women, and 12% of men, imprisoned in Canada, have a mental health issue; two-thirds of provincial prisoners in Ontario require mental health services; 33% to 40% of prisoners are HCV positive and numbers demonstrating prisoners who are HIV positive range from 2% to 6% (high levels of stigma/discrimination prevent disclosure in this environment).

I have provided a small snapshot of health and this is insufficient in demonstrating the impact of homelessness on a person’s mental/physical health and the literal shortening of their life. The snapshot I have provided was to demonstrate there is a strong connection between homelessness and imprisonment and the cycle of prison to shelter to prison is a revolving door of poor health care.

There has been a considerable amount of statistical data put forward in this paper and the premise of this has been to demonstrate that as a community we have provided resources that work towards the containment of homelessness. There are two approaches used to accomplish this containment; shelters and prisons. The provision of these carceral spaces feeds the illusion that the homeless are well served but fail to make use of the resources provided. There is a danger that containment may be seen as a “solution” as opposed to challenging political powers into investing in eliminating a crisis as opposed to containing it to the degree to which we have incorporated it into our daily lives and it is now no more than the status quo of life in our country. A person experiencing homelessness is more likely to experience incarceration but even if there is no prison walls which contain them there are the elements of criminalization in all aspects of their daily life.
What is it to feel the effects of criminalization? To be dependent on people, and a system, that holds complete power in the decisions of when, and what, you will eat; what type of housing will be allocated to you to meet your individual needs and the assessment of these needs being decided by someone other than the person who will occupy the space; how many lines will you wait in each day to have your basic needs met? How can individual needs be met by a system that provides “one size fits all” approaches? The criminalization of a population of people that share one intrinsic connection, the experience of homelessness, validates the decisions made to offer containment resources.

The containment mentality prevents the dialogue that is required to address the trend which feeds the containment approach. Criminalization is the stage that I fear most. At this stage we have incorporated the “different then”, “less then”, and stereotypes necessary to build and fill institutions that are recognized by the community as rehabilitating a human being so that they can become a productive taxpaying citizen. At what point did we remove the right of citizenry from people that are experiencing homelessness?

I have drawn connections between people experiencing homelessness and people experiencing imprisonment. Clearly not all people who experience homelessness are ‘criminals’ but all people who experience homelessness have been criminalized. The effects of poverty, the over policing of racialized communities and high levels of untreated/supported mental health needs for those people experiencing homelessness creates a group very fitting  for the “warehousing” and directive approach of our shelter, and prison, system. As a community we need to recognize, and admit, that our shelter, and prison, systems are broken and by propping them up with more funding we are simply torturing the marginalized members of our community. The criminalization, and warehousing, of people experiencing homelessness is the ultimate demonstration of how society views members of our community as disposable but is also the catalyst for the justification of building more emergency shelters and prisons for the containment of a Canadian crisis; homelessness.


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