I am one of 9,564,210 Baby Boomers in the country – a group that makes up almost 30% of the population. For almost 30 years I was one of some 22,000 Canadian professional firefighters. I am one of the less than 1% of internationals who undertake development programs in south Sudan. I am part of the 912,600 families in Canada that have three or more children (I have 7). My blood type is O-negative. I was a member of the 39th and 40th Canadian Parliaments, and, oh yeah, I was one of the 2,100,000 people who watched Britain’s newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II emerge from her balcony at Buckingham Palace on June 2, 1953 (I was 3 years old).
So, do you think you know me now? Do you know of my hopes, or my deep love of all things humanitarian? Can you discern that I’m inherently shy or that I’m on chemo? Can you sense the depth of my ache when my parents died over 30 years ago, or when a former slave died in my arms from gunshot wounds in south Sudan?
The truth is that numbers don’t tell the real tale. They provide some context and some fodder for public policy, but they no more flesh me out than some photo in an album somewhere.
In more ways than we can count, this is how we now view the homeless – over 200,000 people in this country who somehow become important as part of some cohort and not because they are individuals with deep pains and hopes. In the place of faces they have become statistics.
In so many ways we are as important as people remember us. But what if they only remember a number – #24601 (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables) or #A-25153 (Anne Frank’s likely tattoo number). I recall what Salman Rushdie wrote in his Midnight’s Children and think that this must be the prayer of every Canadian who has nowhere secure to lay their head:
I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done to me. I am everyone, everything whose being in the world was affected by me. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
Why is it that we have the right to claim such identities and hopes for ourselves while the 200,000 homeless barely receive credit for experiencing the same? When Albert Camus urged people to “live to the point of tears,” what do we say to those who have no more tears to shed because their ducts are dry and their hopes are barren? Such is the state of the homeless in our nation today.
Perhaps the greatest hidden cost of homelessness in Canada isn’t the price of caring for them or what their lost productivity means to our economy, but our loss of feeling concerning their fate. As long as they remain numbers, they remain inanimate.
Statistics concerning the homeless are vital to our understanding of the scope of the problem, yet in many ways they might also hurt the cause. True, statistics help to raise awareness, but we live in a generation in which so many numbers get crunched into our heads from every possible sector of society that we respond like unfeeling automatons to people once they fall under a certain statistical column.
Christine Jocoy, an associate professor of geography at California State University, has been at it long enough to witness the downside of translating people into statistics: “When numbers are merely used to re-prove that a problem exists, approaches to addressing homelessness don’t change much.” Jocoy also worries that in just tabulating the numbers, many communities feel they are doing enough.
Organizations like My Sister’s Place in London, Ontario have learned to take such statistics and put human faces back on them. It is a remarkable place that treats homeless women as though the only thing in the world they can truly possess is their own integrity. And from that basic understanding they begin to build their lives once more. Instead of promoting the numbers of women they assist, My Sister’s Place opts to have the women speak for themselves through the establishment of a speaker’s bureau. Suddenly audiences hear their stories and understand homelessness for what it is: a deep human travesty that wrenches hope from the possible. Those listening hear of no place to wash clothes, children undernourished, not enough money for bus fare, the loss of family, and the inability to shower. This is real stuff – real human, tragic, and moving stuff.
My Sister’s Place is teaching our community to use statistics as a door to real people as opposed to a calculator that just leaves the person staring at a screen. At times the greatest transformation of all is that of the formerly benign observers who suddenly find the urge to be human for the sake of the homeless. Those women seeking assistance at locations like My Sister’s Place are plenty human enough – they live the dearth of human existence every minute of the day. It is citizens – all of us – who must begin the arduous and enlightening journey from knowledge to action. When such a transformation begins, statistics give way to empowerment, and numbers move aside for inner understanding.
Homelessness is not a merely a condition, but a national disease. And its only cure will be citizens who fight for equitable justice against an establishment that merely counts the homeless as ancillary costs to progress.