In Search of Better Stories

What I Learned at the Housing Central Conference

The conference was helpful. But three speakers, in particular, I felt really distinguished themselves. 

Thank you, Ross Laird, for teaching me that trauma is at the bottom of almost all boundary-pushing behaviours. Medicating for trauma is not the best way to heal from it, nor is getting the trauma out on the table to talk about it. It’s to help the person develop a sense of belonging, trust, safety, and empowerment. These four qualities for human flourishing are essential for the healing of our deepest wounds.



Thank you, Johann Hari, for teaching me that just as junk food will make me sick, so too will junk values make me sick. Sadly, we are immersed in a machine that has force-fed us junk values. Capitalism and advertising have caused us to want what doesn’t matter. No one at the end of their life will reminisce about the shoes they bought or the re-tweets they got. We’ve prioritized junk values, and the result is an epidemic of anxiety and depression. This is a socially caused epidemic, so it requires a social solution. Chemical antidepressants do not address the main issue. In addition to needing the significant antidepressant of meaningful values in our life, we also need stability. Dauphin, Manitoba, was the location of a major social science project done in the 1970s. For three years, the government provided a stipend to everyone in that town to meet all basic material needs. The result was a 9% reduction in recorded cases of anxiety and depression year by year. Chemical interventions do not even close to that level of success. Finally, the last antidepressant offered by Johan Hari was to create belonging. The sense of home that our society has built is not big enough to fill our need for belonging. Home is the place where people notice when you are not there. We have to become proactive about rebuilding a sense of home to see fewer people depressed and anxious.



Thank you, Eric Klinenberg, for your talk on the vital necessity of social infrastructure. It was enlightening to learn that during the 1995 Chicago heatwave that claimed 700 lives, the primary places hardest hit were where minimal social infrastructure was in place. No community centers, parks, coffee shops, corner stores, or even banks. People were isolated, they hunkered down, and they died. Whereas parts of the city that had these natural connecting points were not nearly as hard hit. To flourish, we need accessible gathering places where social connection and cohesion happen. Social distancing is the last thing we need, especially in a pandemic. For now, it should be physical distancing but social solidarity, and then back to physical closeness as soon as possible. Social infrastructure is the most crucial material consideration when it comes to housing.

One additional observation to think about is that drugs and alcohol abuse make it very difficult for anyone to feel belonging, trust, safety, and empowerment. Drugs and alcohol abuse is the penultimate example of junk values. They also make It very difficult to create any stability or sense of belonging. Finally, when someone is lost in their addiction, they don’t care about social infrastructure other than to occupy it, making it more challenging to carry out the good purposes for which it was created. All the noble words of Ross, Johan, and Eric fall to pieces when someone is under these unfortunate influences. It’s drug and alcohol abuse that makes people the most un-houseable. In this conference, the only conversation about what to do regarding housing and drug and alcohol addiction is to take away any stigma associated with the habit and create safe spaces where they can continue their addiction in comfort and with care. I guess that’s better than nothing, but it seems to me that there is a direct line between drug and alcohol abuse and our housing crises. The more abuse there is (even if it is carried out without stigma and in safe environments) the more housing troubles we will continue to have.

So many are entrenched in habitual patterns of abuse that there is little chance for quitting. So we have to manage the situation in creative ways as best we can. We treat those caught in these addictions with dignity and respect, and we try and fail, and try again, and fail again, to find workable housing solutions for them.

We can work upstream, trying to prevent the trauma before it happens, which leads to the addiction in the first place. But that’s for other professionals to work on. Let’s do what we can to load up workers for the fence at the top of the cliff. Let’s help people when they are young. But that’s not for me; I work with the people who have already fallen off the cliff.

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