Friday, July 25, 2008


There has been a significant rise in the number of people living on the streets in cities across North America. Generally, municipalities view the problem as one of aesthetics, it looks bad and it is a nuisance to descent people trying to navigate past the panhandlers.

We may ask, though, "who are the homeless and how did they come to be here in such high numbers? Perhaps, more importantly we may ask, "what can be done about the problem?" In his TED talk, Daniel Goleman, offers some thoughts about the nature of compassion and provides some insight into the problem. Goleman states that recent studies indicate that over 90% of people who live on the street have psychiatric problems. He goes on to urge a mindful approach to seeing others through our busy lives and unexamined assumptions.

I came across a wonderful resource in my research into the topic of homelessness. In 2003 the Center for Urban Community Services published a document on supportive housing for the homeless. In chapter 1 they provide a history of the policies over the past that have resulted in the increase in the mentally ill living on the streets.

The trends have been:

1. The discharge of large numbers of people from psychiatric hospitals since the 1960's. The trend toward de-institutionalization and the lack of availability of community resources has been a major contributing factor.

2. The decrease in stock of single room occupancy units in the 1970's . These units, in older hotels, provided affordable housing to psychiatric patients and others. Urban renewal projects has meant the disappearance of these housing stock as cities seek to get rid of what some considered "eyesores" and the magnets of urban problems.

3. Diminishing government benefits, such as disability pensions.

4. The advent of AIDS.

5. Reduction of job opportunities for unskilled workers in an ever-increasing information -based economy.

A movement to reverse these trends has been in the offing since the early 90's. Supportive housing offers the best alternative to dealing with the problem of homelessness. In the next few weeks I hope to review what this movement looks like and how it is likely to result in a compassionate community.


Rachel said...

You might also want to check out Bernie Glassman's work. His book Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Masters Lessons in Living a Life that Matters (Bell Tower, April 1996) recounts the opening of Greyston Bakery, which is the corner stone of a program to provide job training for (former) homeless coordinated by the Greystone Foundation. He also offers street retreats where people live on the street for some time intimately experiencing being homeless.

Barry said...

Thanks for the suggestion Rachel, I will look into the book. I plan to do some mindfulness work on the street with people, the book sounds like it would be a source of inspiration.