Housing is not a privilege to be earned, but rather a core building block of overall stability. Below standard housing, housing contingent on behaviour metrics, and shuffling humans through labyrinths of service referrals all aggravate the overdose epidemic. Put simply, we haven’t given our neighbours a chance.
✍🏾 Sophia Kelly-Langer writes on behalf of the Expert Steering Team at the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa
“We’re in a state of emergency”. It starts to lose impact, or it seems to. We live in a community just beginning to see light at the end of a crisis tunnel. Years have passed coping, and not coping, with the impacts of the Covid19 pandemic. Another emergency came with sweeping protests throughout the city, leaving us to navigate discourse around what constitutes an emergency. Two years into the state of emergency on housing, we’ve encouraged the city to keep their sights set on home. We’ve called upon each other to keep a sense of urgency surrounding the housing crisis and move together into this election cycle with our priorities firmly in mind. That security, and safety, start with home - For all of us. That the most vulnerable among us are those we must uplift, to build a better community, together. One emergency, however, has remained in the margins…
The overdose epidemic continues unabated. In 2021, Ottawa hospitals crossed the 1000 overdose admissions line. The need for harm reduction services, particularly those addressing safe supply, have far exceeded what our community can currently offer. It’s well documented that homelessness and substance use are intertwined. We see hints in the existing data that the causal link may run contrary to what is often assumed. This is not a substance use to homelessness pathway, not exclusively, but rather often a symptom of isolation, abuse, and hopelessness.
To better understand where substance use and housing intersect, I sat down with several members of our community willing to share reflections of their lived experience.
It’s about wanting to numb yourself, or escape. It’s like your problems are gone when you use or drink and it’s so available everywhere it’s like “why not”.
It’s so much more readily available than other help. Like housing, or counselling, or love and connection.
While we discuss the answers to the overdose crisis, and those to the housing crisis, we often overlook a core link. Citizens preoccupied with survival needs have little time, energy, and resources to set goals surrounding sobriety and/or stability.
The point at which I was able to be housed, securely housed without the potential of a landlord kicking me out, until that happened everything felt so precarious.
A close family member of a homeless individual who had long struggled with his drug and alcohol use spoke to a sense of powerlessness, watching a loved one navigate the pitfalls of the system.
He lost his job and he was depressed, and eventually he lost his house and he was homeless. As a child of intergenerational trauma, he had a lot of pain, and eventually we discovered there was child sex abuse involved… I actually went to the Chief and said “Can you help my brother put down a deposit on an apartment, and then I can help from there?”. Just to get started. But at the time, he just wasn’t stable enough. I wish he’d had the emotional, the practical supports… We felt so guilty. We helped him as much as we could.
Narratives from loved ones often paint a picture that may seem at odds with public perception. “The burden to house our loved one was placed on our shoulders. We begged for help, and help never came”. This seems to fly directly against the announcements we see in the media about increased funding, new harm reduction services, and new housing options. The legacy of an abstinence focused health care system is still largely present in the housing sector. Someone unable, or unwilling, to live a lifestyle of total abstinence may be deemed too “high risk” to be housed. A policy that strips the individual of autonomy, and leaves them with no options but to fend for themselves in an environment that breeds harm.
You can achieve some kind of focus [once housed]. Sometimes wellness doesn’t get any further than housing, but sometimes you can get to greater heights. They all deserve to have a place of security and not have to live in fear of being assaulted, or raped, or be sick outdoors where no one can find them. Everyone deserves their own little corner of happiness.
It continues to come back to the question of who deserves to be housed. If housing is a human right, surely it’s not something to be earned? Yet for substance users, every day is a battle to educate the community. That a substance user is not evidence of a moral failing, but rather a human being every bit as complex as the rest of us. Risk taking behaviours, like it or not, are part of being human. The consequences of those behaviours, however, are not equally imposed.
No one deliberately puts themselves in those positions. When I was younger we’d all go out smoking and drinking, but not everyone grows out of those circumstances.
Where do we go from here? Well, we take a chance, and invest in our fellow citizens. Housing is not a privilege to be earned, but rather a core building block of overall stability. Below standard housing, housing contingent on behaviour metrics, and shuffling humans through labyrinths of service referrals all aggravate the overdose epidemic. Put simply, we haven’t given our neighbours a chance.
What most people need is everyone to just leave us alone. Give me the subsidy and go. Don’t mandate therapy or whatever. I don’t trust you. You stood by while I suffered and now you want to tell me what to do. A lot of people won't look at the people dying on the grates of our city. They’d rather freeze to death than go into the shelters. They can’t do it anymore. Is it that hard to say “here, here’s a place”? Stay here, show you can bring your food here, and who cares if they use there for 6 months? I’m not saying services aren’t important, but first, just house people. Give them the nearest food bank address, show them the supports they can use when they need them, and let them choose their path. Four of my friends have died, I heard today. All of them had the potential. They were intelligent and sensitive. We all have our journey. Just give them a chance.
A chance. It’s what we all need to step beyond survival and into a space where we can thrive. It’s a chance that starts with home.
We’ll always be surprised by how well people can do when they’re given a chance or an opportunity. Not a chance like, you could lose this any minute now if you break one of twenty rules. No, just “here, this is yours”, and they will surprise you every time.