Homeless People Deserve Human Rights Too

Shelter House
Rotary Shelter House on George Street in Thunder Bay

Barred clients are denied access to food at the Rotary Shelter House
Barred clients are denied access to food at the Rotary Shelter House

Denial of Food – Ignored Basic Human Rights

THUNDER BAY – Helping hands and hearts can make a huge difference to Thunder Bay’s population of homeless people. Those in our community at the low points in their lives often are forced to struggle against poverty, hunger, oppression, depression and despair.

Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Achneepineskum will lead a fast and prayer session over the next forty-eight hours at the Shelter House. “Homelessness is all-too prevalent in Thunder Bay and many urban centres across northern Ontario, and vulnerable members of these communities are often victims of violence and other forms of abuse,” said Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum. “There many contributing factors including rigid policies on housing and social assistance, court and legal issues, racism, mental health and addictions. This 48-hour fast will help raise awareness about the need for services and resources to help the less fortunate, and  we ask for prayers from all community members this weekend.”

If there is one thing that Shelter House should not do is serve as a place that kicks the clients when they are down. Sadly however that appears all too frequently to be exactly what staff do to the people who they are supposed to be helping.

Many in our city point to the Rotary Shelter House as the safety net that offers a safe place, a warm meal, and a caring heart. That should be the goal.

There are some steps toward seeking solutions, but it also appears that some of the policies at the Thunder Bay Rotary Shelter House are contributing to the problem.

Left outside in the rain
Left outside in the rain – Sleeping was treated as a reason to call Superior EMS by Shelter House Staff. Afterward Superior EMS had left his belongings out to disappear.

An example of the attitude of staff at Shelter House can be found in how a report of a man sleeping outside the Shelter House in the rain on September 17th was handled by staff. It is one of a number of similar instances recorded by NNL in recent weeks.

Empathy and compassion appear to be Executive Director Gary Mack’s strong suit. However that same kind of empathy and compassion appear to not be what the staff offer the clients when the Executive Director isn’t present.

Today, the man was sleeping under a fleece blanket and a plastic tarp. He was just behind the Oddfellows Hall, within sight of the Shelter House. His bedding was soaked. The man’s walker was beside him.

Shelter House was informed of the man’s situation. Rather than get him into the Shelter to dry off, get a meal, and seek to assist the man, the staff, in the opinion of this reporter, arrogantly said “We will call him an ambulance”.

That was done. The man was picked up by Superior EMS. His walker, and his shoes, along with his belongings were left behind.

What condition the man was in isn’t known, but chances are his belongings including his walker and his shoes will be gone by the time he is able to either walk or get a ride back to downtown Fort William.

When Sam Achneepineskum, Lead Elder for the Cultural Committee at Shelter House was made aware of this situation, he offered no solutions but responded by saying “Oh….yeah”.

Shelter House Director Gary Mack has stated when made aware of these concerns, “When determining policy I have sought as much input as possible from clients, staff, and community partners. I greatly respect your point of view and hope that you will continue to share your perspective with me. We are both passionate about helping our community and I believe that collectively great things can be done.”

Perhaps it is time that the clients are provided with a more defined role for their views. Right now on the fence at the back of the Shelter House clients appear to be running a survey asking if clients trust the staff. That poll has yet to record a vote in favour of the staff.

Sadly it appears far too often a growing number of people are facing not a hand up, but a put down at Shelter House.

Denied Food at the Shelter House

The United Nations International Declaration on Human Rights states 25 (1):

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.

That contrasts sharply with the directions taken by the Rotary Shelter House in Thunder Bay. The message there is simple: “All barred clients will no longer be able to use our services. No sandwiches, no pastries.”

Not only does this made in Thunder Bay policy appear to ignore the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, but it is in complete contrast the policies at other homeless shelters in other communities.

In Toronto, the policy is simple: “Not use or withhold food to in influence behaviour (either as reward or punishment)”

Toronto has a number of policies in place which protect those most vulnerable in the city. That includes heat policies and cold weather policies.

Calgary has similar enlightened policies that ensure that food is not used as a means of punishment or enticement for behavior change. The Thunder Bay Shelter House policy, established on May 2nd, according the Shelter House Executive Director Gary Mack was put in place to protect staff, who were facing abusive behavior from clients.

At the Toronto Homeless Shelter, the policy on Shelter service delivery is based on accepting and respecting the inherent dignity, diversity, experiences and abilities of all individuals.

(a) Shelter providers will

  1. (i)  Create and maintain an atmosphere of dignity, acceptance and respect for all individuals
  2. (ii)  Respect and balance the independence, values, knowledge, abilities and diversity of all individuals
  3. (iii)  Provide services to each client in a non-judgmental manner, free from discrimination and harassment
  4. (iv)  Protect and promote the health, safety and security of all individuals
  5. (v)  Protect the personal and health information and privacy of all individuals

Gary W, from Toronto tells NetNewsLedger that at the Toronto Shelter, clients often are abusive toward staff as well. Gary W. states that the response however is far different. “They say to a client, ‘We are sorry we have done something to offend you. Now what can we do to help you”.

By taking a positive and client focused customer service approach problems are very frequently resolved without conflict.

The Board of Directors at Shelter House could likely learn from the experiences at homeless shelters in other communities.

Stay tuned for part two: Addictions, Needles, Prostitution

Part Three: Solutions for Thunder Bay