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The discovery of a body on Oct. 27 in the original CN Rail terminal building in Sydney indicates two separate but related problems in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM).
One problem relates to the hazards associated with abandoned buildings throughout the CBRM and the other reflects the perils associated with local homelessness.
Abandoned buildings are vulnerable to criminal activity, vandalism, fire hazards and the unsightly presence of property on an island recognized reputedly for its "beauty."
Unsightly buildings are costly to remove and affect the budget capacity of the municipal government. Both problems reflect the entrenched poverty of the region and call for funding from a cash-strapped provincial government to address these issues.
Most residents have adequate housing and shelter in the more than 100 communities that make up the CBRM. But because almost all of these communities are rural we are unlikely to encounter homeless people on the roads and streets as we would in Halifax or Saint John.
In many ways, this very real problem is almost invisible to us. For that reason, it is difficult to get accurate numbers as to who is homeless. Despite efforts to get data, most tallies are really only estimates, most of them lower than the reality.
Homelessness is not an everyday topic of discussion in the various communities of the CBRM. It almost never comes up in conversation except among the agencies that confront it, such as Loaves and Fishes, Every Woman's Centre, AIDS Coalition of Cape Breton, Elizabeth Fry Society and the Community Homeless Shelter. Unlike in other Canadian communities, homelessness is something we really don't see very much, even though it's out there.
However, a number of things do seem clear:
the scale of the problem is greater than the public or the government know;
the extent of any increase in homelessness is unpredictable but is related to the general economic decline being experienced throughout Cape Breton;
the provincial government, facing new budget challenges will not consider homelessness a top priority. When politicians are asked, there will be rhetoric and platitudes but no money.
Except for the two shelters within the CBRM, each organization mentioned above are not there specifically to service homeless needs. They encounter it. They deal with it. They service it. But there is no coordinating of these service organizations on the issue of the homeless.
What is needed is a central coordinating linkage of these services to the homeless. The men's shelter is usually at capacity with about 10 beds. Women have less available beds. But the chain of solutions is not as coordinated as it could be.
While the public will often see homelessness as directly related to mental health and drug addiction, it's important to remember that poverty is the usual culprit in most cases. In terms of poverty rates, the CBRM spikes at four per cent higher than the rest of Nova Scotia, and some six per cent higher than all of Canada.
Our child poverty rate for those under 18 is over 40 per cent higher than the provincial rate of 21 per cent and nearly 70 per cent higher than the national rate of 18 per cent. Our seniors are particularly vulnerable at 20 per cent, nearly 50 per cent higher than the national rate of 13.4 per cent. Foodbank usage is increasing as a result of COVID-19.
The homeless are vulnerable. They are the people who have no fixed address, and are disconnected from opportunity, money and social supports. Even though Cape Breton has some social advantages for getting others to help us, just getting anywhere is a challenge. Getting to a doctor, a dentist, getting medications or getting to an emergency room is difficult and often not affordable without transportation.
A growing number of homeless in Nova Scotia are families. Women and children make up a fast-growing segment of those who become homeless. Many of them simply cannot afford to pay rent and buy food on the income they receive from their low-wage jobs or from public assistance.
When politicians are asked there will be platitudes, but little-to-no active commitment. The idea that the provision of shelter is a government responsibility, undertaken out of a community sense of charity is not widely accepted by legislators in Nova Scotia.
But when homeless people are found dead in abandoned buildings it's time to take political action.
Dr. Jim Guy is an author and professor emeritus of political science at Cape Breton University.
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