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How Do We Get From Here to There?

February 26,2016


How Do We Get There From Here?


For the purpose of understanding and insight I want to reiterate the Canadian Homelessness Research Networks Canadian Definition of Homelessness:


“Homelessness describes the situation of an individual or family without stable ,permanent or appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination.  Most people do not choose to be homeless, and the experience is generally negative, unpleasant, stressful and distressing.”


Reflection upon the definition of Homelessness, I myself gained some insight into my own childhood and the particular experience of moving frequently. Over my lifetime I have moved thirtyfive times.  Eight of those moves were from my earliest childhood memories, up until the age of fourteen. Only realizing now that the reason for the constant moving was due likely to the cost of our housing rising, being unable to remain where we were living, this forced a move upon the family. The residual effect of these frequent and stressful experiences  were that for much of my early adult life, after a couple of years in one place I would become restless. This would prompt a chaotic need to move, to change my surroundings.  Now, I recognize and acknowledge these feelings, without necessarily indulging them. Although, I do still rearrange the contents of my living environment, this seems to satisfy my need for change.  


When chaos and dysfunction are bedfellows, when it is all you know, it is all you do! November 22, 2013, an article published by The Atlantic, written by Derek Thompson, a Business Writer, encapsulates a study linking a 13 Point drop in IQ for those living in poverty. The study by Neuroscientists, Jiaying Zhao,and  Eldar Shafir,, based out of Princeton University, published their findings in the journal Science, August 2013. I will attempt to synopsize the article from what I understand.  “It isn’t that those of us living in poverty aren’t capable of making rational decisions, it is that the inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily that we abandon long-term planning entirely, because short term needs are so great and long-term gains so implausible.”


When all of your time and energy are spent in subsistent living, one has no time, money or energy left to pursue anything else!


These academic findings are not a surprise to me! In my first article, I spoke of Simone Weil,(1901-1943), a French thinker, anchored in the economic and political realities of her time.  Weil documented the struggles of the French labourers she worked with in the factories.  Working side by side with them, living on the meaghre wages they were paid, eating the same food those wages provided and living in a sparse French tenement; Weil understood why there was no resistance to their situation. Weil noted herself an all encompassing and pervasive numbness, the apathy that she experienced left her incapable of advocating for herself or anyone else.


Having a personal and intimate experience with poverty, it confounds me to this day how my personality and my decisions are distorted by the indelible impressions left on my psyche that linger into middle age. There is much that I understand now about my choices over the years of my life that I now cho

ose to do differently. There is still much that I don’t understand, and that I may never! What confuses and frustrates me at times is that we as a society understand the longstanding implications and outcomes for those who experience these life situations. We have the statistics, the deaths, from drugs and despair, the incarcerated, the homeless, the children in care, the broken families, the broken lives.


The Myths of Homelessness


#1 Homelessness Affects Only Middle Aged Men

Fact: The fastest growing segment of the homelessness population are women and families with children.


#2 Homeless People Should “Just Get A Job”.

Fact: Getting a job is especially challenging for a homeless person who lacks clean clothes, showers, transportation, and a permanent address. Others have a criminal past, learning disabilities or lack of education.  Even if they find work, their low income often cannot sustain them.


#3 People Are Homeless By Choice

Fact: No one starts life with a goal of becoming homeless.  Yes, poor choices often contribute to it , but circumstances such as job loss, mental illness, domestic abuse, and trauma strongly influence those choices.


Myth #4 Helping People Enables Them To Stay Homeless

Fact: Food and shelter are essentials for life. By offering these and other outreach services like restrooms, showers and mail service, we build relationships with people in need. Then we’re able to offer more through our recovery programs, like counselling, addiction recovery, life skills and job training.


Myth #5 Sufficient Affordable Housing Will End Homelessness

Fact: Housing can help people who are homeless due to poverty. But many people still struggle to function in a normal life, and may return to homelessness.


Myth #6 Homelessness Will Never Happen To Me

Fact:Talk to the hundreds of homeless men and women we serve each day and they’ll tell you they never intended or expected to become homeless.  Many had solid jobs, houses and families.  But at some point, life fell apart.  Now they’re desperate for a way back home.


The infographic that I have included with this article references Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE’s.  I am including this as a source of understanding and will follow up this explanation with an image of the MRI’s of brain scans showing the actual changes in the brain of mental illness and trauma.  These things are very real and have had a significant impact not only on my life, but the lives of many people who have similar experiences. I fall within the area of having experienced all three types of abuse.  It was pervasive and longstanding.  In many ways, I often marvel at the fact that I am still here.  I have cultivated a sort of resiliency.  This is not to garner sympathy, it is to gain understanding and empathy for those who have suffered and still do from the challenges faced in overcoming these unfortunate circumstances.


Personally, my two literal experiences with homelessness were at opposing ends of my life the first time a physical assault from the man that I was married to, where I required surgery, hospitalization and three months of being unable to work.  This was in my early twenties, I worked as a bartender/waitress, due to the nature of my injuries my recuperation required physical therapy. I lived at a woman’s shelter for the duration, subsequently moving into a rooming house. In the early eighties there was not much available for a single woman, and I would like to say that the situation has improved, unfortunately it has not!  Referring to my homelessness as literal, I want to make a distinction that I was technically homeless at other times when I was using the time honoured tradition of couch surfing. This too is now being recognized as homelessness. Although it seems to be an accepted form of homelessness for our population of youth, it is still homelessness!


Five year’s ago, my mental and physical health took a turn.  I found myself in a place that I thought I had left behind, in active addiction, deteriorating mental health and a relationship that was not healthy either.  Thankfully, I knew what I needed to do at that point, I had my not lost the tools and  resources that I had gained over my years of recovery work.  I got myself into Detox, and from there I managed to get a bed at one of the Women’s Shelters. It was mid-winter, beds are at a premium at any time of the year, particularly so in winter. Many single women living in a shelter are there for a long time, I met many who had been there month’s and several who had been in shelter for a year and more.  This due to the fact that families get priority for emergency housing over single women and men.  I was one of those who had priority for housing, because of my Joint Custody Agreement for my daughter, who at the time was thirteen. I was registered with the help of staff at the Shelter with the Social Housing Registry, my stay at the Shelter was four months.


Presently the wait times for housing, if you are not in an emergency situation as I was, are seven to ten years here in Ottawa.   There are 7,800 people on the list!  The City of Ottawa’s Affordable Housing stock was increased by 150 Units in 2014.  There seems to be a large gap in the funding and implementation of the intentions of all levels of Government to end this housing crisis.  What concerns me most is that what I hear being touted is this concept of Affordable Housing!  Who is it affordable to?  Certainly not me, or anyone living on a below LICO (Low Income Cut Off, $30,000.).  How are we ever going to provide housing for everyone who needs housing?  We need to do things differently!  This brings me back to the Tiny Housing Community Project.  The basis for a Tiny Housing Community is multi-faceted.  It is an opportunity for those of us who have had little to no community in our lives, to build something inclusive, to restructure community to fit those of us living on the margins.


Whether Tiny Housing is an interim solution does not matter! It is a partial solution to where we are now, in getting to where we want to be, which is providing shelter for everyone who needs it!  The keywords being needs it!



The Journey of A Tiny Housing Project Proposal

The Tiny Housing Project Proposal has been around for six years now. The first time that it saw the light of day was in 2009. Jim Watson, who is the Mayor of Ottawa, was, at the time, the Provincial Minister of Housing. That Ministry at the time, gave a call out to all interested parties and the public to submit proposals, ideas and comments for consideration for their Ten Year Provincial Housing Strategy Plan. I was politely thanked by letter for submitting the project proposal, there was no commitment to nor momentum established for this type of project!  


The Municipal Government of Ottawa has established a mandate to address homelessness under the umbrella of the Housing First Model. Unfortunately, the Municipal Budget does not allow for the considerable investment that would be required to address this cities significant lack of Affordable Housing. Last year, One Hundred and Forty Affordable Housing Units were built in Ottawa, the Social Housing Registry has a 7-10 year wait list with 7,800 people on that list. This does not include those who are in Shelters, at risk of losing their housing because they can’t really afford to pay their rent and the hidden homeless, those couch surfing, or staying with family.


Myself, I have been living in subsidized housing for almost seven years now. Two and half years in Inuit Housing with my former partner, now on my own with my daughter in Community Housing for four and a half years. I could never afford market rent, because my Disability Pension puts me well below what was once considered the Low Income Cutoff, (LICO), of $30,000.


The conundrum that we, we being the collective society, as far as supporting Affordable Housing is concerned, when we talk about Affordable Housing who is it affordable for?  Most, like myself who are living on Pensions, disability or otherwise, will always require subsidies in order to keep us housed.  Building the buildings is only part of the cost! It is the maintenance and the subsidies needed to keep us housed over the duration of a lifetime at times where the greater costs are incurred. This, I suspect is part of the reason that all levels of government are reticent to put forth the monies. The fact that funding models do not allow for any long term planning contributes to the lack of Affordable Housing. We need a National Housing and Poverty Reduction Strategy.


The seed of the idea for the Tiny Housing Community Project was planted a long time ago! In 1996 I read a book that has kept me inspired and motivated for many year’s. The book is called,”Instructions to The Cook, A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters, by Bernie Glassman.” I am including the link in case you are interested, or curious enough to discover for yourself what wisdom is contained there! Described as both a manual for spiritual transformation and a call to action.

This review of the book and the work that Bernie Glassman and his colleagues have done in Yonkers, New York has been taken from the link that I provided. This best describes what was done and continues to be done on a monumental scale by what is now known as Greyston Foundation. Please follow the link to see what being inspired can do, the Social Good bottom line!


“Zen is not just about what we do in the meditation hall, but what we do in the home, the workplace, and the community. That’s the premise of this book: how to cook what Zen Buddhists call “the supreme meal”—life. It has to be nourishing, and it has to be shared. And we can use only the ingredients at hand. Inspired by the thirteenth-century manual of the same name by Dogen, the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, this book teaches us how we can “enlarge the family we’re feeding” if we just use some imagination.


Bernie Glassman founded Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, in 1982 to employ those whom other companies deem unemployable—the homeless, ex-cons, recovering addicts, low-skill individuals—with the belief that investing in people, and not just products, does pay. He was right. Greyston has evolved into an $8 million-a-year business with clients all over New York City. It is the sole supplier of brownies to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and has even sold cakes to the White House.


But financial profit is only one of two bottom lines that Greyston is committed to. The other one is social impact, and this goal is certainly being met. The bakery enterprise has led to the creation of the Greyston Foundation, an integrated network of organizations that provide affordable housing, child care, counseling services, and health care to families in the community. Using entrepreneurship to solve the problems of the inner city, Greyston has become a national model for comprehensive community development. Its giving back is more than just sloughing off a percentage of its profits and donating it to charity; it’s about working with the community’s needs right from the beginning—bringing them from the margins to the core. As its company motto goes, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.”


This book is as much a self-manual as a business manual, addressing such concepts as


  • Beginner’s mind
  • The Middle Way of Sustainability
  • The “hungry ghosts” of Buddhism as a picture of all humanity
  • Working with our faults
  • Indra’s Net and the interconnectedness of life
  • Leaving no trace”


Sharing the story of Greyston and Bernie Glassman it is my hope that you are inspired as I was, and still am, to do what I can, with what I have, where I am!


Further to the Tiny Housing Community Project and why I firmly believe that it’s time has come! When money is only put into the buildings there often is not much put into the building of community. I am going to show you some examples of how community is being rebuilt by some of the most vulnerable in our society, members of homeless communities across North America.

In my proposal there is a quick reference to Dignity Village located in Portland, Oregon. Dignity Village was initially a Tent City that came about through the Occupy Movement. When the Occupy camps were dismantled, the drive to establish something permanent was born. Dignity Village established a baseline for this type of community, as you can see for yourself in the links to key website information that is being provided.


Dignity Village is a membership-based community in NE Portland, providing shelter off the streets for 60 people a night since 2001. It’s democratically self-governed with a mission to provide transitional housing that fosters community and self-empowerment– a radical experiment to end homelessness.

Our Mission

We seek to create a green, sustainable urban Village for those who are seeking shelter but are unable to find it. We feel it’s necessary to establish a community-based living facility where people living on the streets can have their basic needs met in a stable, sanitary environment free from violence, theft, disruption of peace, and drugs and alcohol.

Dignity Village started as both a camping protest by a group of committed homeless activists, and a viable alternative to sleeping on the streets and in doorways. It emerged as a transient tent city in December of 2000 on a parcel of vacant city land underneath a downtown bridge. Over the course of a year, the tent city was swept around Portland, occupying various public spaces, and repeatedly finding themselves in high-profile standoffs with officials. Whenever notice was given to leave a campsite, early residents of “Camp Dignity” packed their belongings into shopping carts and pushed them in parades to their next location.

For a time, a space under the Fremont Bridge was known as Camp Dignity. In December 2001, Dignity Village registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit status with the IRS. When the ruling came down that they needed to vacate from that location, the considerable force of the organizers split into three groups. One moved out to a forty-acre farm outside Portland, and called it Rancho Dignity. A second group occupied a field off Naito Parkway, known as the Field Of Dreams. That camp was swept, and several members were arrested for camping on public lands. The third group moved to an industrial area in NE Portland, Sunderland Yard, where the Village still sits.

Moving to the Sunderland Yard site was indeed controversial. Some early members of Dignity Village felt it was too far outside the city, doomed to failure because residents wouldn’t be able to access necessary services.

This move was meant to be temporary until a permanent site could be identified. Instead, it has been the home of Dignity Village since its controversial beginnings. After three years surviving in its temporary status, it was sanctioned as an official tiny house Village in 2004 by the Portland City Council. To do this, the City Council designated a portion of Sunderland Yard as a Designated Campground under the terms of ORS 446.265. This State statute allows 6 municipalities to designate up to two sites as campgrounds to be used for “transitional housing accommodations” for “persons who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low income housing.” The statute notes that these transitional campgrounds may be operated by private persons or nonprofit organizations.


Dignity Village supplements its operating budget with a variety of entrepreneurial projects. Over the years, the Village has raised money through plant sales, tie-dyed t-shirt sales, and flea markets. For a number of years, members of Dignity Village ran a hot dog stand in downtown Portland, called “Dignity Dogs,” through a partnership with Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon.

These fire starting buddies are available for sale, as well as seasoned hardwood.

Currently, our most successful microenterprise programs are scrap metal recycling  and firewood sales. Seasoned firewood can be purchased at Dignity Village seven days a week. Call Ed K. at the Guardshack for more information.

In Eugene, Oregon a similar village has taken shape. Originally called Opportunity Village, it has recently changed it’s name to Square One Village.  There are now two such villages in Eugene, Oregon. One of the key factors that has helped to bring cohesiveness to the villages is that they are models of self governance. The community members decided from the outset to have a vetting process in place, including an agreement that all member’s sign and must abide by. The agreement includes a prohibition of violence, no stealing, no drugs or alcohol use on the site.  Tolerance and participation are encouraged!  Please follow the link to see what has been, and is continuing to be accomplished by these formerly unhoused people.

Quixote Village, another Tiny Housing Community located in Olympia, Washington describes itself as the vision that grew from a self-governing tent camp of homeless adults.  The village itself was built as a formal development, it received government funding and was built by a contractor. In contrast Dignity Village and the original Opportunity Villages were built by the people living in the communities.

Moving forward with this Tiny Housing Community Project proposal, there has been interest from individuals, none from the bureaucrats or politicians in my area. Participating in a local community initiative called Civics Boot Camp in 2014, sponsored by Citizens Academy I was able to get the Tiny Housing Community Project highlighted as one of several projects that we worked on in a group presentation format to a panel of experts, familiar with the inner workings of municipal government.  The project received good reviews and there were suggestions made as to how to move the project to the next level.  For information about the Citizens Academy and Civic Boot Camp please follow the link.

I continue to plant the seed of The Tiny Housing Community Project where I can. Presently I am working with the Community Development Office at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre to reach a wider audience.  Stay tuned!