07/16/2014 12:30 EDT | Updated 09/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Today a Homeless Man Slept On My Porch. Tomorrow It Might Be Yours

This morning I woke up to a man peering in my window. My first instinct was that the person was looking for one of my neighbours. That is, until the person staggered to the ground and laid down to sleep. As someone familiar with homelessness issues, I was torn about how to handle this situation. I didn't want to call 911, but it might not be safe to wake this person up. He also might have required medical attention. So I called an ambulance.

This is yet another example of how, like it or not, homelessness impacts all of us in various ways. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And this morning, injustice woke up on my front porch. Tomorrow, it could be yours. Until we take ending homelessness seriously, we will continue to deal with all of the problems associated with homelessness. Doing nothing isn't free. Let's not pretend otherwise.

Having a person walk through ones gate to sleep on the porch is alarming. Someone less comfortable with marginalized people might have reacted much differently. Indeed, one could easily picture a father of young children confronting this person with a baseball bat -- or worse. Parents are cagey when it comes to their children's safety. Unfortunate situations often lead people to overreact. Homelessness is dangerous to all parties concerned.

While those of us who live in urban settings see the impact of homelessness up close, it isn't a downtown problem. Homelessness comes from many places. It comes from broken homes. It comes from flooded out communities. It comes from our dysfunctional reserve system. It comes from a societal failure to adequately deal with addiction and mental illness. In short, it is a provincial problem that is invisible to many who don't live in the city.

Alleviating chronic homelessness is essential to downtown revitalization efforts in all cities, particularly here in Winnipeg. While my experience was rare, the fear of such experiences is part of what keeps people out of downtown. No one wants to wake up to a stranger on their porch. People who aren't accustomed to city life are often scared off by aggressive panhandlers. A few such experiences are enough to convince suburbanites that downtown is too dangerous after dark to go for dinner or a show. Downtown businesses suffer as a result. Even though it is a provincial problem, city residents and businesses bear all of the costs.

Homelessness is expensive. Dispatching paramedics to pick someone up costs money. As does sending police to arrest someone, and processing them through the justice system. Indeed, a single homeless person can cost society up to $130,000 per year - and up to 200,000 people experience bouts of homelessness each year. The costs add up quickly. In fact, the status quo might well be more expensive than actually solving the problem.

Cities all over North America have been experimenting with a deceptively simple approach to homelessness: giving the chronically homeless shelter and support services. The majority of homeless people are not lazy. They are physically incapable of caring for themselves, and lack the social support networks that most of us enjoy. Getting them off of the streets into a safe place to live is the best we are going to do for them. It isn't cheap. It can cost up to $37,000 per person annually. But this still can be cheaper than leaving them on the streets or spending $117,000 per year to put them in prison.

Some might argue that charity can take care of the problem. Indeed, charities do a lot to help the homeless. Shelters and soup kitchens prevent many from starving or freezing to death. But they haven't demonstrated an ability to provide long term solutions for the majority of chronically homeless people. They should be an integral part of alleviating homelessness, but they don't have the financial capacity to solve the problem on their own. Moreover, it isn't fair to let City residents bear the entire cost.

Even a completely dispassionate analysis of the issue suggests that something needs to be done. Indeed, we have a solution that has succeeded where tried. Until then, many will suffer needlessly. And urban residents will bear the implicit and explicit costs. We can ignore the problem, but it won't go away. We can either pay a lot to keep the problem, or a little less for a safer and more humane solution. Today a man slept on my front porch. Tomorrow it might be yours. We can do better than that.


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