I remember how little my jeans, sneakers and light jacket did against the -30 degree cold of a Saskatoon winter. I’d just woken up on a cold cement floor, shivering under the thin fleece I had for a blanket. I was given a plate with some bread and boiled egg, then left to roam the downtown streets. The idea was to get a sense of what it’s like to be homeless.
The event was called “Hope for the Homeless”, to raise funds and awareness for the city’s homeless population over the course of a weekend. I was in my third year at university when I had the opportunity to participate. The funding went to different organizations to provide care, shelter and food for people living with homelessness. We were to experience what it’s like for 24 hours, walking outside for most of the day, sleeping in a simulated shelter, and visiting local organizations in our core neighbourhoods working every day to help people without homes. It was a cold, miserable and difficult time, even for its short duration. But it turned on a lightbulb for me.
It was heartbreaking to see the circumstances so many dealt with. Some, especially those from the remote north, could not read or write at all. Others had lost so many loved ones in short periods of time, which led them to paralyzing depression. Some said they just fell into the wrong crowd when they were young leading to addictions and worse. The loss that some of these people went through was hard to process. Too many people have told me how when they see someone on the street they think “they did this to themselves.” But they’re fighting an uphill battle every day against the social, economic and political factors that helped to put them there and are keeping them in that situation.
I am now a registered nurse in a neurosciences wing. I’ve seen first hand how poverty and inequality impacts the health of so many patients. In school they called it the “socioeconomic status disparity”. It can look like addiction, or it can look like crime, but it’s always coming from lack of access to housing other basic needs.
"They’re fighting an uphill battle every day against the social, economic and political factors that helped to put them there."
People without homes are also often overlooked when it comes to direct access to healthcare. Their issues are social, economic, political – they’re complex, and so they often don’t get the care they need inside or after they leave the hospital. Multiple barriers of health stop them from even beginning to experience a positive life change, let alone being able to continue recovery from their health problems.
This and cover photo contributed by John Bonnar.
Poverty and inequality aren’t just determinants of our health, they’re determinants of the determinants. They determine if a person can come home and continue therapies, whether its physiotherapy, homecare or whatever the person needs. Not having a stable address, or a safe home, or even access to simple things like showers can create huge obstacles to health.
To address the health impacts of poverty and inequality will take time, policy action, adequate investments and real commitment to change. But even without that, we can all help to make a difference. In urban communities across Canada, rates of homelessness are totally unacceptable – but there’s also the ‘hidden homelessness’ of periodic and unstable housing that is probably the larger problem. In my home town of Saskatoon there are at least 450 individuals who are “fully homeless, but more than 6,000 individuals struggling with "hidden homelessness". It’s believed this number is actually much greater today due to increased cost of living.
"Poverty and inequality aren’t just determinants of our health, they’re determinants of the determinants."
Raising awareness is one way to start the fight against homelessness. If our communities can even just start to see the root causes, or see how homelessness stems from the lack things we take for granted everyday, we have taken a step in the right direction. There are multiple places already at work in our downtown core. Volunteer your time, donate or at the least, have a conversation at the dinner table. Together we can start to look out for the most vulnerable in our communities, and all be healthier for it.
Trent Leland is a registered nurse at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.