10/11/2012 03:34 EDT | Updated 12/11/2012 05:12 EST

Why We Engage in Healthy Self-Suspicion


As Edmonton prepares for its homeless count later this month, agencies such as ours are curious to see the impact the Housing First model is having on the clients we serve. Numbers tell part of a story, and I am hopeful the story they tell will focus on the benefit of a paradigm shift in the way Albertans support our most vulnerable populations.

The Mustard Seed in Edmonton has a long history of supporting individuals caught in the cycle of poverty. When we talk about our organization we tend to talk about the meals we serve and the clothing we distribute. I often describe our best known services as the "tip of an iceberg." Beneath the surface, what is less obvious to the public is the operation of a food bank depot, a Federal Prison Chaplaincy program that focuses on community reintegration for former inmates, permanent supportive housing and community support workers who meet with and support our clients in change activity.

In recent months, we have entered into a season of "healthy self-suspicion." Agencies such as The Mustard Seed have focused core business on the obvious needs of Edmonton's homeless, unemployed and under-employed. By meeting these most obvious needs, we can become convinced that we are meeting the biggest needs of our community members. However, we are more and more aware that the people we serve struggle not only with the obvious challenges of poverty; they battle much larger and more sinister challenges which make change come harder and death come sooner than in the general population.

What needs are hiding below the water? In one word -- overrepresentation. Higher incidences of mental health and addictions occur for those who are unable to access or retain market housing. In the vast majority of cases, these individuals have experienced and continue to encounter significant trauma. Violence and exploitation are overrepresented among those trapped in the cycle of poverty. No wonder!

The people who line up for supper at The Mustard Seed are more likely to lack adequate income, shelter, education and employment opportunities. They have a higher incidence of family and relationship violence. Many of them are dealing with chronic illness, a lack of access to medical and dental supports, as well as challenges around keeping and caring for their children. All of these issues are vastly overrepresented in our client population. Add to that the struggle to maintain a medication regimen, keep current I.D. and manage finances. Imagine trying to overcome addictions and manage relationships while living outside, in a homeless shelter or rooming house where personal security and opportunity are both significantly lacking.

Healthy self-suspicion asks, "What are we doing to address the challenges faced by our clients?" It is brave enough to consider how we may be hurting those we care the most about. It allows us to face some of the elephants in the room such as creating dependency, demotivation, poverty tourism, exploitation and superficial relationships with those we claim to support.

In light of this information, you may think that there is no hope at all for the people we work with. On the contrary, honest questioning and a commitment to deeper engagement between staff and service users can take us further beneath the surface of their lives. It allows us to allocate staff and resources to find housing solutions as a first step. With housing secured clients can tackle other barriers.

The Mustard Seed can align with an evidence base that says "housing first" significantly impacts the lives and change options of its participants. We can work toward the identification and support of those who are experiencing an emergency and tackle the giant of created dependency. The Mustard Seed can become more culturally aware, build capacity and partnerships which understand and provide trauma-informed service. This allows us to go further and deeper below the surface to address poverty's root causes. Through these actions, we can leverage our current activities toward better outcomes for those accessing our staff and programs.

We like to say that "Hope Grows Here," at the Mustard Seed. I believe it can!