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The Community Action on Homelessness hosts a public lecture and workshop. Guy Quenneville reports



This past Monday's Opinions page in The Chronicle-Herald featured a letter from a disgruntled Kelly Smyth of Lower Sackville.

Her beef? "There is nothing I despise more than to drive by Robie Street and Quinpool Road and have to look at the delinquent faces of people young and old standing there holding their signs of poverty and their squeegees asking for your help."

Smyth, while certainly free to express her opinion, nevertheless exemplifies a popular attitude today held by people who refuse to look past the surface of things—lest their hands get dirty. Her letter continues: "I'd like to know how 'poor' these people really are and I'd love to know where they live and what the families of these people think of their children begging."

Homelessness is not a choice, but often a circumstance imposed on someone powerless to stop it. Misconceptions like those expressed by Smyth are just some of the issues that will be addressed at a two-day event next week meant to spread awareness about homelessness in the Halifax region and to suggest practical solutions to help better fight it.

Organized by the research committee of Community Action on Homelessness, the event will begin on Tuesday night with a public lecture featuring several local researchers who've examined HRM's homelessness problem.

Rebecca Kohler, a researcher with HRM and one of the event's organizers, says the public lecture is meant to spread a "further understanding about what capacities exist within agencies and communities already and what kind of partnerships between these different areas could result in actions presently, as opposed to depending solely on block funding from the governments. "I think a lot of people think that homelessness is always a personal issue or can be the result of personal failings or personal choices in life, as opposed to more structural issues of the economy and health."

One of the key issues to be discussed during both the public lecture and the full day workshop on Wednesday (which is meant to transfer research findings into practical solutions) is the increasing problem of youth homelessness. According to Kohler, one alarming fact to emerge from recent local research is that 34 percent of the 266 homeless people surveyed in 2004 were less than 24 years old, representing a marked rise in the proportion of youth. "What came out of that study was that there is only one emergency youth shelter in HRM and youth often have experienced barriers to accessing other shelters or are reluctant to use adult shelters."

Smyth's letter concluded with an address to the homeless: "Honestly, people, if you can stand on the side of the road for 8 to 10 hours a day, you can stand behind a counter all day. You won't get a cent or help from me—try to help yourselves."

But as Claudia Jahn, the community liaison for CAH, points out, there are many barriers in place preventing homeless people from accessing education or getting jobs. "It's simple things—like not having the proper clothing, not having money to buy your lunch, or you can't pay the fees. And we will discuss many more barriers in terms of employability. If you don't have the right working gear, you don't even get a job for a day. And if you don't have a fixed address, nobody's going to employ you."

Jahn says in order to get homeless people off the streets, Halifax should look at some of the best practice examples set by Toronto, which has many "good housing options or skill-building and employability programs for youth."

Dorothy Patterson runs a youth centre for kids on Gottingen Street. When asked to comment on the current housing crisis, she lets out a heavy sigh. "We don't enough have housing. Our youth shelter has 20 beds. But there are hundreds of youth who are homeless."

But while an enormous amount of work is being done to spread awareness about the problem, the practical solutions explored at the lecture and workshop cannot possibly work without one crucial component.

"The public has to be educated in order to put more pressure on the government," says Jahn. "If there would be political will, this problem could be easily solved in Nova Scotia. The numbers are on the rise, but we could really handle this problem if we worked together. The main thing is political will—and this can only come from the public."

Lecture on homelessness, November 29, Ondaatje Hall, McCain Building, 6135 University, 6:30pm. Workshop, November 30, Public Archives, Robie and University, 6016 University, 420-6026

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