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A report on our Sharing Circle Forum addressing the root causes of health issues - including poverty and homelessness


October 21 at a River Heights sharing circle forum we focused on keeping people heal
thy, warm and safe this winter and in the future–in essence, what's needed for Manitoba's preventive health plan.
      Michael Champagne led. He said, stop calling people homeless; instead talk of our friends and relatives on the street. If not for chance, it could be us. Help starts with understanding, dignity and respect.  Michael talked about the need for real reconciliation – action not just talk – 1) point out which Truth and Reconciliation recommending you are working on, for example the one which deals with hiring an indigenous person, 2) by supporting Indigenous institutions like Thunderbird House, 3) by adopting a trauma informed approach to care and caring, and 4) by improving representation of indigenous people  including at senior levels in organizations and on the Boards of organizations.  Michael also talked about the sharing of indigenous knowledge, and ensuring everyone in our community regardless of the colour of their skin or where they sleep at night are loved, respected, receiving services and have opportunities for dignity and belonging to the community.  
      Marion Willis drilled down into the practical realities of helping people leave the street. Her efforts with St. Boniface Street Links and at Morberg House address homelessness, meth addiction, mental health and previously being in CFS care. She delivers continuous and seamless support at Morberg House, followed by up to a year or two transitional housing with supports, and it works.  At any one time she has 12 men at Morberg House and in two years has helped about 200 men.  She spoke of the current, largely fragmented system with parts not closely connected and the difficulty for an individual who is homeless and with a meth addiction to find their way through this path.  There needs to be a path off the street – a path which helps with addictions, mental illness and achieving housing.  For those with an addiction to meth, there needs to be immediate access to detoxification when the person is ready or when detoxification is possible.   Detoxification needs to be followed immediately by a period of addiction treatment which may go on for four weeks and this needs to be connected and followed immediately by a period of continued stabilization and support which may continue for a year, sometimes even longer.  Each step needs to be closely and seamlessly connected so that we avoid the all too often encountered scenario of a person reverting to addiction because there is not seemless and timely transition from one step to the next.   Marion Willis also talked of the impact of being in CFS care and the importance of a much better transition out of care and into education and employment. There continue to be major shortfalls in such a transition now with too many being rendered homeless or treated as homeless when they age out of care.  She also spoke of the importance of the social well-being of people to the economic well-being of our society, and of the importance of bringing resources from all government departments to address these issues in a comprehensive fashion.
      James Favel, of the Bear Clan, whose patrols have done so much to improve safety in the North End, described the immediate needs of our friends and relatives on the street for warming shelters, for food and for enough money to have some stability.  James talked of the impact and the importance of helping those who are homeless moving to having a home and then moving to home ownership.  Home ownership, said James, gives people a stake in their home and a stake in their community.   People who own homes have a vested interest in looking after their homes and looking after their communities.  Furthermore, those who own homes become part of the effort to address issues like drugs and prostitution.  James talked of what motivates him and he spoke specifically of Windy Gail Sinclair  niece of one of James’ volunteers. Windy died on the street after leaving an emergency room where she had gone for help with her meth addiction.   James was there when she was found dead.   He described the pain and suffering in the community which has resulted from deaths like Windy Gail Sinclairs.   He called for more effective policies to prevent deaths on the street.
      Evelyn Forget took us to the world with a minimum basic income, based on the Dauphin experience in the 1970s. Such a program can help many individuals' ability to live, complete their education and find employment.  She stressed that much of the current system focuses on maintaining poverty rather than ending it.  She stressed that we need a system which does not separate people into those who have and those who have not, but rather a system which supports all people and so levels the playing field for those who are disadvantaged. She spoke of Ontario’s pilot program which provided (until it was ended by the new Ford government) a basic income of $17,000 per year.   She spoke of the need to see a basic income as a right which is not contingent on fulfilling certain requirements.  She spoke of the fact that individuals need to be able to make choices and that individuals are better than governments or bureaucrats at deciding what is best for them.   She spoke of the result of the Mincome trial in Dauphin which showed that hospitalizations decreased by 8.5%, and that the incidence of mental health admissions was especially noticeable for its decrease.  She emphasized that giving a little source of stability for those who have not had a lot of stability in their lives can be a life changer and help people get the education and the stability they need to do well. And she said, based on a comparison to other social programs like Old Age Security and the Child Tax Credit, it is affordable.
      Rick Lees of the Main Street Project affirmed: “No one needs to be homeless. It can be fixed tomorrow.” We can have a healthier, warmer and safer city and province. We just need the political will to help our friends and relatives on the street.  Rick talked of the dramatic change in Winnipeg over eight blocks from the Centre of Finance for those most well off at the corner of Portage and Main to the area near the Main Street Project with the deepest poverty in the City.  We can do better. Rick emphasized that we need to look at ourselves and our values and the evidence of what is happening and what could happen.  He talked of the fact that most people are on the street as a result of family breakup and family trauma.  He talked of the fact that we, as a society, stigmatize people and treatments.   He talked of one individual who used the Health Sciences Centre extensively last year, but who is now, on a Main Street Project program, being supported at much lower cost and now rarely using the Emergency Room.   He also talked of the need to follow the evidence. The Main Street Project now provides clean needles to help prevent people from using dirty needles and getting HIV AIDS, and Rick suggests we need also to provide a safe consumption site as well, as is now being provided in other provinces and has proven to be effective in improving safety and health and reducing the number of needles being left on the street where they can be a danger to children and others. 
Gary McLean, social worker and former civil servant, brought up the fact that there are large numbers of First Nation people in Canada who are living on about $5,000 a year. There is still racism and there are still divides and a lack of understanding across the divides in Manitoba.  He issued a call to action “It is you and I who are going to make the difference.” He talked of his own experience.  He was jumped recently.  His nephew got shot in Thompson. There are still things happening that should not be happening.  He said “Somehow you and I in this room have to educate our provincial, federal and municipal politicians”
There was a discussion of Medicine Hat where they have done well in ending homelessness.  Their municipal politicians have come together with non-governmental organizations and with the private sector and worked to the goal of finding a home for anyone who is homeless within 48 hours.  They not only find the home, or the place for a homeless person to stay but they also provide the ongoing support that has been effective in moving many who were homeless into not only housing but into employment.   Marion Willis stressed the importance of helping move people from poverty and homelessness all the way to employment and urged efforts to have large corporations involved in employer sponsored initiatives to facilitate the training and employment of those who have lived in poverty and been homeless.  Rick Lees also spoke to this – and the effectiveness of Housing First (the At Home – Chez Soi program) which has provided housing with supports, and the fact that Housing First saves money overall.  But, he added that for some people it is important to include congregate living as housing– where people can live with others.   Indeed, Rick Lees mentioned quite a number of people who he knows are very good at congregate living (even at the Main Street Project) and can function and are employed living in congregate living, but do not function as well living on their own.  Others stressed the importance of the dignity of individuals and ensuring as part of whatever program is used that the dignity of individuals, no matter their circumstances, is respected, and the importance of learning together.
Other comments included:
-          One advantage of a minimum basic income is that not only would it enable people who are poor to make choices, but it would also free up social workers to be social workers to help people instead of administering the system.
-          Non-profits are and have been the service delivery arm of government.   In this context, non-profit organizations need to come together and work together moving toward more comprehensive and effective solutions.
-          Now government tells organizations what they need to do.   But what is needed is for organizations to have a greater role in telling governments what needs to be done.   
-          There are solutions, and each of us have the power to do some things.
-          There is a need for greater cooperation among non-profits, but at the moment, most non-profit organizations are spending so much time writing reports and grant requests that there is not the time to spend on developing the collaborative relationships.  Currently, the administrative oversight from funders, whether government or other, means that organizations often need to get approvals from government for small details.  There are checks and balances in this approach, but it does limit initiative in a number of ways.
-          One option for collaboration is the table of 11 executive directors called the Manitoba Association of Community Health which meets monthly and includes health centres like Mount Carmel Clinic, Main Street Project and Nine Circles.
-          There was a discussion of warming centres and the potential and the need to have more warming centres.
-          There was a discussion of the need to make changes to EIA.  We have 20 year old kids who can’t get EIA or rent a place because they don’t have bank accounts.   There needs to be more flexibility in how support is provided.
-          There was mention of the importance of appreciating the situation of evacuees from flood affected communities like Lake St. Martin who became homeless and many remain out of their homes and continue to struggle.   There is a need for greater respect for people who become homeless for whatever reason, because it is frequently not their choice – and certainly was not the choice of those who had to be evacuated because of the flood of 2011 and are still not home in their own community today.
-          There was a discussion of how homelessness affects all communities, how it affects individual families from all communities and has an impact on all communities whether through the families directly affected or on local crime or other matters.   

Thank you to all our panelists and to all who came and contributed to the Forum. 

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