Taking a Business Approach to helping HRM’s Street-Involved Population

The other day, I had a discussion with a friend about the election.

He asked about proof of residence and was kicking up a fuss about needing to find a piece of ID or registered mail in order to vote and was, overall, unsatisfied with my regurgitation of voting protocols around security and proof of address (i.e. so everyone votes in the appropriate riding).

As a recent Dalhousie University graduate who had moved 8 times in the last 6 years, he couldn’t even say for sure where he was living at the time of the last election, let alone have a piece of ID with his most current address.

Essentially, one of his major beefs with Elections Canada centered around the need for a more accessible voting system. To illustrate his point, he asked “What about street people? How do they vote without a permanent residence?”

If it weren’t for my recent meeting with EJ Davis – downtown Halifax’s very own Navigator – I wouldn’t know for sure how to answer. But there is, in fact, a protocol, as well as volunteers who visit shelters to assist occupants with elections registration and voting procedures.

So, don’t worry – Canada’s homeless populations are able to vote. But this process is more complicated and labour intensive than is the case for those of us with permanent residences. The process for voting as a homeless citizen breaks down in one of the following four ways:

  • Option one, you are a registered voter and have ID to prove that you are who you say you are.
  • Option two, you ask your shelter to set you up with an “Attestation of Residence,” an official document that confirms which riding you are meant to vote at.
  • Option three, you swear an oath and someone you know vouches for you. (With the catch being that this person must also be a resident of the same riding, and have the necessary ID, themselves).
  • Option four, screw it.

So it’s not that homeless people are not able to vote, but just like many other day-to-day processes, they almost always start out at a disadvantage. While certain tasks are annoying for you and I, street-involved people face real barriers at almost every turn, when trying to make positive, pro-social choices.

Ok, let me back it up. We all know that homelessness is a serious and complicated matter. Depending on how much these issues speak to you, you may also know that the system we have currently set up to support this population is incomplete, if not broken.

Enter EJ Davis, the Navigator.

In 2007, Bernie Smith and the Spring Garden Area Business Association (SGABA) started up the Navigator Program –  a community-minded attempt to calm tense relations between local merchants and the panhandling and street involved populations that were – and still are – treating the Spring Garden Area as their home base.

Tired of taking a reactionary response to the urban-social service issue (e.g. phoning the police, hiring more private security guards to troll the area), business owners expressed the need for a more serious, long-term approach to the issue of homelessness and panhandling in the downtown core. Rather than pick up the phone to call the police, business owners wanted to be able to call on someone who was able to take a more understanding approach to the issue; one that would provide more positive, long term solutions for the community, particularly around safety (for the street-involved population that frequents the area, the business owners and the greater community).

The Navigator Program’s main focus centers around providing greater – more direct – support for street-involved populations whose needs are not being met by the current system, including identifying what gaps exist in the network of services available and collaborating with community members to find meaningful solutions.

In the four years since the Navigator program officially began (I say officially, because, as you can see here, Smith was already working to remedy these issues in a hands-on way, as early as 2006), the program has been funded by a rotating cast of funders – primarily made up of a number of local business associations (including the SGABA, the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, the Downtown Dartmouth Business Association), but also includes support from the Department of Justice and The Society for the Improvement of the Conditions of the Poor.

While HRM was originally involved in funding the program, matching any contribution put forth by a business association dollar-for-dollar, they opted to discontinue their support this year. While the province generally tends to fund social programs, this is not strictly the case. Nonetheless, where HRM’s funding of the business associations involved in the program formerly afforded half of the cost of running the Navigator Program, their discretionary funding was slashed by $35, 000 this year, which left associations to find financial support for the Navigator program elsewhere.

Despite these hardships, EJ Davis and his supporters are proud of the work that has been done, and progress that has been made, since the program’s inception. These successes come in the form of measurable results:

  • During the 2010-11 year, the Navigator made contact with over 300 known members of the street-involved population in Halifax.
  • Of those 300 contacts, 146 people engaged in programs provided by the program- the Lunch Program, Street Sweeping, the Employment Support Program, and Skills Traning and Employability Programming. This number represents a significant increase in contacts from previous years (120 people engaged in 2009-2010; 76 in 2008-2009; 45 in 2007-2008).
  • These 146 contacts do not account for any of the referrals made by the Navigator to other non-profit and/or governmental organizations, around the areas of housing, physical and mental health, and addictions, amongst others.

While the program’s mandate does not address the root causes of homelessness, Davis is filling one large gap in the network of supports for street-involved folks.

Increasing employability is his official task, but, where a definition of what increases employability is concerned, he is, in concert with the individuals he aims to help, able to identify what it is that would be most helpful to this end. When I asked for more information, he mentioned several wide-ranging examples, including simple things like buying bus tickets, so a newly employed person is able to make the commute to their new job. Other examples included printing album covers for a busker, so he could sell his newly pressed album (which was made with the aid of another local non-profit), buying steel-toed boots for those who get warehouse jobs, taking people to Access Nova Scotia for ID cards so they can set up bank accounts, and the list goes on. In his definition, essentially anything that provides an individual with a safer, more stable, lifestyle, increases employability.

Photo by Katie McKay