For the past two months you were bombarded by requests to exercise your empathy for someone you don’t know and likely have never even seen. Some of you responded by picking up a little extra non-perishable something while grocery shopping and dropped it in the “Food Bank Box”. Some of you called the toll-free number debit/credit card-in-hand to make the annual donation to, well pick one of, call it 200+ registered charities in each of New Brunswick’s two largest cities. Others donated proceeds from a day’s clipping ‘n’ snipping, cleaning almost anything, or other owner-operated business. Some of you left scarves or hats or socks in “appropriate” places. All to help the homeless if only for a moment. Empathy, its kissing cousin sympathy, and its nasty cousin pity have that effect on people. Maybe you?
Most anyone can empathize with homelessness for a moment. Surely you know how it feels to be hungry or tired or ill for an hour or a day. Most of you know when you should wear a hat and a scarf and had them to wear.
But unless you have been homeless, you really can’t empathize with ‘homelessness’. That’s not your fault. By definition, empathy requires an understanding that shares a sense of being and most anyone can for the short term. Short term empathy leads to short term thinking; short-term thinking to short-term solutions. We have enough short-term solutions to keep homelessness going for years to come.
Considering its longevity perhaps we should respect homelessness rather than promoting a sense of empathy around it. After all, homelessness has proven itself capable of exercising its power for generations of shelters, food banks, and community kitchens.
Homelessness is powerful. In Canada, it boasts at least 235,000 participants every night. In a single smallish city like Fredericton N.B., (2016 population ≈58,000) homelessness supports at least three shelters, a food bank, and a community kitchen. Let’s respect homelessness. Let’s respect its economic power.
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives [CCPA] reports that “, this total cost of poverty ($2 billion) is equivalent to 7% of New Brunswick’s GDP (gross domestic product or size of its economy). ”
Part of the cost of poverty maintenance is the cost of a 25 bed men’s shelter where the average stay is very close to three years.
The adjacent community kitchen serves 14,000 meals each month and every day the kitchen delivers 358 school lunches delivered to 15 schools.
Public Safety Canada reports  that roughly one in every five prisoners, was homeless when incarcerated and that the average length of each incarceration lasted about two months. At an average cost of nearly $300.00 per day for men and nearly twice that for women being homeless and in jail costs approximately $900.00 to $1800.00
As you might expect, staying healthy without a home is challenging. The homeless are hospitalized five times more often than the general public and usually stay in hospital for longer periods. At an average price of $762.71 per day, medical costs quickly balloon.
Add to this the number of seniors staying in hospital while waiting for a room to open in an appropriate home and the cost of homelessness increases again.
Most of these homelessness-maintaining operations and organizations depend heavily on volunteers. That does not mean that everyone is working for free. Individually people receive a paycheck; collectively governments receive tax dollars.
Admittedly, I benefit from homelessness as well. It gives me something to write about. However, to be honest, there is one I really want to write: New Brunswick Ends Homelessness.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not represent any other organization. Norm is an At-Large Member of Canada Without Poverty’s Board of Directors. Norman.Skelton@alumni.unbc.ca.