By Abla Tsolu
As shelters across the region cope with revisions to services amid COVID-19, I strongly recommend the need to take a critical look at all of our converging systems such as housing, healthcare, mental health, long-term care and education. These are systems that have historically perpetuated a cycle of poverty and oppression instead of empowerment, equity and inclusion.
One of our Temporary Shelter Coordinator’s, Julie Lynch recently said to me, “we cannot manipulate the people, rather we must manipulate the system” and I totally agree.
According to sociologist Robin DiAngelo, “long term systemic oppression in access to resources, social acceptance, housing, education, employment, healthcare and economic development has devastating effects. [Oppressed groups] develop survival strategies in order to cope with long-term oppression”. As workers in the social service field, we tend to say ‘our clients are in survival mode’, ‘they are street smart’ or ‘they know how to beat the system’.
Just the other day, a client asked for my support to access urgent care for a serious health concern. They tried to access urgent care several times that week and, on more than one occasion, were denied service and called a ‘needle user’ by more than one healthcare professional. These systemic flaws are evident across North America.
In Canada and just across our border, we are seeing Black Lives Matter protests unfolding after the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “What makes violence a phenomenon of social injustice, and not merely an individual moral wrong,” posits DiAngelo, “is its systemic character, it’s existence as a social practice.”
According to David G. Gil, a professor at Brandeis University, “efforts to prevent violence will continue to fail, as long as its sources in oppressive and unjust social conditions and values are not understood, confronted, and eradicated.”
Similarly, it is far easier for the community to label clients as ‘violent’, ‘destructive’, ‘needle users’ or ‘crack heads’ rather than address its own systemic flaws. It’s not a coincidence we are seeing our clients’ needs becoming increasingly complex. COVID-19 has not only exposed flaws in long-term care, it has exposed all other systemic inadequacies within our community.
Systems have to change post-COVID-19. We’ve been trying to fit square pegs into round holes for too long. These systems have been ineffective and in fact, have been more harmful than helpful for the vulnerable populations we serve.
I thereby challenge policymakers and governments to re-evaluate our systems to make them more accessible. I also challenge members of our community to build bridges for our most vulnerable rather than acting as stumbling blocks. Policymakers and governments have a role to play, so do you and I. Let’s not perpetuate injustices, violence or homelessness but rather let’s be catalysts in helping our most vulnerable advance through their basic needs. This is the only way empowerment will be attainable for them post-COVID-19.
Abla Tsolu is the Director of Homelessness and Housing Services at the YW Kitchener-Waterloo