COLUMN: ‘I don’t even know where I’m going to be sleeping’

Psychologist Dr. Todd Kettner on homelessness and poverty among school students.

by Dr. Todd Kettner

I was working in one of our schools last week when I heard a teacher gently encouraging a Grade 9 student to try their best to get to class on time each morning. “Man,” he replied to his teacher, “I don’t even know where I’m going to be sleeping at night so I think the fact that I’m even here by 10 a.m. is actually amazing!”

A quick scan of the Nelson’s annual Report on Homelessness shows that individuals as old as 79 years of age have had to access emergency shelter last year. In fact, affordable housing for seniors is one of our community’s most pressing challenges.

And it’s not just teenagers trying to couch surf and stay in school or older citizens who are struggling to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. It’s even households where at least one adult is fully employed.

One of the volunteers for Nelson’s 24-hour snapshot on homelessness surveyed a mother in her 20s.

“She is renting a mobile home way up the Slocan Valley since last year because she still can’t find an affordable place in Nelson. She has to drive every day to get her partner to work at a pizza place.

“He has to either hitch home or she has to stay in town all day with a 4.5 year old and a 12-day-old baby… Or spend money on gas to pick him up, which they don’t have on his single wage.”

Those are just a few of the stories. Here are just a few of the facts:

The cost of living has increased 11 per cent since 2007, which was the last time that income assistance and disability assistance rates were really raised. Advertised rental rates for housing have gone up over 29 per cent.

A stable home was identified as a significant protective factor for youth living in the Kootenay Boundary region in the 2013 McCreary BC Adolescent Health Survey.

“Youth who had stayed in the same house in the past year were more likely to feel that there was an adult in their neighborhood or community who cared about them.”

Furthermore, according to the McCreary report, “Youth who always felt safe in their neighbourhood during the day were more likely to rate their mental health as good or excellent compared to those who never or rarely felt safe.”

Youth who had not been in a stable home for the past year were twice as likely to have seriously considered suicide.

“Individuals with lifetime homelessness experienced higher rates of all childhood adversities compared with individuals without lifetime homelessness. The most prevalent childhood adversities for both women and men experiencing lifetime homelessness were physical abuse, physical neglect, and general household dysfunction. Nearly half of women with a history of homelessness also experienced childhood sexual abuse.” Leslie Roos, et. al. 2013 Journal of Public Health.

The links between unstable housing, poor physical health, trauma, and mental health challenges are so significant that family physicians are now calling Canada’s housing crisis a Public Health Emergency.

In a recent CBC article, Ryan Meili and Tim Richter raise the alarm bells that, “homelessness causes premature death, poor health and is a significant burden on health-care system.”

They go on to note that, “according to the newly released National Shelter Study, Canada’s emergency shelters are packed to the rafters.

People are languishing in homelessness longer, and their ranks increasingly include seniors, veterans and families with children. Shamefully, Indigenous Canadians are over 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous people to end up in emergency shelter.”

These troubling facts are echoed here in Nelson.

“The people I work with are youth transitioning out of care, women fleeing violence or identifying as indigenous and people leaving hospitals, care facilities, or incarceration. I work with people who are at risk of losing their place or are homeless due to a crisis,” said Stacey Lock, Nelson’s Homeless Prevention Worker.

We can do better. We must do better. Not just because adequately helping people recover from trauma and/or increasing the availability of quality affordable housing is a sound long-term investment. But because it is the right thing to do.

Dr. Todd Kettner is a U.S.- and Canadian-trained psychologist who works supporting students in the 20 schools across the Kootenay Lake School District #8.

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