Vancouver Family Therapist Shelley Behr: Volunteering Is Way Forward to Solving Homelessness
The homeless are accustomed to being invisible. They are off the radar and at the bottom of the agenda for many people and political institutions. So addressing this vital issue requires a simple first step: counting their number.
In Vancouver, Canada, the task is aided by groups of volunteers who fan out across the city to count the number of displaced and dispossessed people living on the streets. The census is conducted by the Homelessness Services Association of British Columbia in partnership with the Vancouver city government.
When volunteers mobilized this year to visit shelters and comb the city, it was the first time anyone had counted the homeless since COVID, inflation, and stratospheric housing costs dramatically changed the contours of society and the trajectory of many lives.
This March, Shelley Behr was one of the hundreds of volunteers who participated in the 24-hour census. During the day, she works as a family therapist at her own Vancouver-area private practice. Although her office is in an upscale neighborhood, she sees the results of the foundational societal stresses that generate homelessness and an array of other social ills.
Rising rents, for example, not only displace people but also create financial pressures that may ultimately lead to the fracturing of a family.
“Homelessness is a symptom of myriad deeply rooted causes,” she says. “Counting the homeless won’t end the crisis, but it can certainly help us to understand the magnitude of the issue and begin to address it much more effectively than we have in the past.”
Behr urges people to become actively engaged in creating practical solutions to the problem. “There are many things we can all do,” she says. “We shouldn’t wait for the government to solve the problem. After all, how well has that worked out? We must all do our part. It’s the only way forward.”
She explains that lack of affordable housing plays a key role, as well as unemployment, mental illness, and drug addiction. The homeless population includes kids, survivors of domestic abuse, and even individuals with full-time, low-wage jobs.
“It’s a local, provincial, and national issue, but also an issue for every person and business owner,” says Behr. She offers specific examples of how individuals and institutions can help:
For example, most businesses have excess inventory and unused items they can contribute to organizations helping the homeless. “If you own a restaurant or grocery store, partner with local organizations that collect unneeded food you have at the end of the day,” she urges. “Donations of clothing, furniture and electronic devices can also make a big impact. If you have unused or under-utilized space, make your facilities available as shelter, especially in winter.”
Companies can also encourage employees to volunteer, and make it easy for them to do so. Managers, corporate leaders, and workers can visit local organizations that are working to help the homeless and ask them what they need.
In addition, businesses can implement programs that allow homeless individuals to work at the company as an apprentice, intern or employee, allowing them to gain valuable skills and expand their future employment opportunities.
For a broader impact, people and companies can help organizations that are addressing issues of addiction and mental illness, which are catalysts for the downward spiral that so often leads to life on the streets.
Closer to home, companies can put in place support systems that will provide mental health, addiction, and domestic abuse resources to employees who may be in need. Businesses can also provide flexibility in scheduling that will reduce the burdens and anxieties of workers who may be juggling the roles of parent, employee, and provider, often all alone.
“These are simple steps, and fundamentally we do need people and organizations to take first steps, rather than waiting for the implementation of complex government initiatives,” adds Shelley Behr. “As the famous Chinese maxim teaches us: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’”