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University Letter

The following is a letter I’ve written to York University. It is long, but I think it’s as long as it needs to be.

While writing this letter over the past few weeks, I was able to finally put into words some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with all summer. This version includes a minimal set of those ideas, but gets to the heart of things, in general terms. Let me know what you think.


To whom it may concern,

I’m writing to enquire about attending York as a mature student. My situation is unusual. I am in my mid-forties, and I am homeless. As of October 2021, I will have been homeless fourteen years.

I’ve no intention of attempting university while I am homeless. My plans to attend university are contingent on a secure return to housing. I’ve been raising funds to that end, though with uneven success. To date, I’ve raised a little more than $1,000. My fundraising goal is based on one year’s cost of living in Toronto, approximately $35,000. That number does not include costs related to schooling.

The program I am interested in is ‘Business and Society.’ My interests and experiences match well with the program’s area of focus. The problem of homelessness is closely linked with current thinking in law and social and economic policy. My homelessness has provided me insight that I want to use to reshape that experience for others.

I am confident that I meet the criteria for a mature student. The worrying questions are all financial. It is unlikely that I will qualify for a loan from OSAP for reasons I describe below. With that as a starting point, my questions are:

  • Is there anyone I might speak with about the unique characteristics of my situation?
  • Where might I find information about financial help connected to York?
  • What financial aid resources might be available to a person in my position?
  • Are there bursaries, grants, or loans I can be made aware of?
  • What supports exist to help mature students polish their academic skills?
  • Can you offer any advice apart from what answers I’ve asked for here?

My post-graduation goals include founding a new non-profit advocacy organization for the homeless. My experiences have taught me a lot about myself, the world, and the dimensions of the problems of poverty, marginalization, and homelessness. Advocacy and policy around homelessness needs an entirely new direction. I want a university education to be a part of my effort in bringing that to life.

Advocacy as I’ve witnessed it these past fourteen years has focused primarily on maintaining the illusion that homelessness is best dealt with at the municipal level, in emergency shelters. This approach to the problem of homelessness is one which accepts a rather low ceiling of possibility for the majority of those who have become homeless. It is, in effect, a policy of abandonment.

Most people never see the reality of homelessness. The reality is an absence of all hope. It is the utter lack of resources. It is persistent anxiety. It is every sort of deprivation, and endless time. It is life without any meaningful future. Homelessness begins with fear and instability, and becomes perpetual, directionless uncertainty. Homelessness is, at root, the destruction of human potential in all who live it.

The existing framework for managing homelessness can be, most generously, described as inadequate. As a result of historical decisions in policy and thinking, the resources made available to homeless people are fundamentally insufficient. This is a problem system-wide.

The working poor, the vulnerable, the homeless and marginalized are more visible than they have been since the Great Depression. Food insecurity, housing instability, stagnant wages, and the absence of disposable income threaten the future of the working public. These problems are the result of trends and behaviours which need addressing.

Focused and divisive propaganda, unaccountable corporate power, the intemperate pursuit of short-term profit-centric goals, and outsized concentration of wealth endanger the future of Western societies. Globally, beyond the realm of governance and economics, our challenges are more serious.

We face, as a species, a number of imminent threats. Long-term consequences of climate change, immediate-term disasters in the natural world, and disruption to global logistics and support systems are only some of the problems we will be coping with for the foreseeable future. These problems are rooted in the same ground. Unaddressed, they will continue to flourish.

The consequences of orthodox thought on business, economics, and working politics are evident on every city street. Homeless men and women, shuttered businesses, impoverished, unhealthy elderly, and the mentally ill are present in every neighbourhood. Addicts, professional charity fundraisers, protesters, used needles, trash, human waste, expensive condominiums and their accompanying ‘poor doors,’ are all commonplace. Yet people wander along the sidewalk chattering and gawping as if the devastation evident, a human devastation, is not connected to the reality they live in.

The need for a more stable social and economic base is clear, and it is urgent. By turning my experiences of the past fourteen years to work on helping shape policy and thought on homelessness and poverty in Canada, I want to disassemble the anti-human policies and norms which exist today. Policy and thought on homelessness is only a small part of a big picture, but it is a vitally important one.

My own homelessness began as the result of a lack of income. Part of that outcome developed after a failed attempt to complete the Computer Programming stream at the private college formerly known as CDI. I had taken part-time shifts at my job with the aim of scraping by for my time at school. It would have been a total of eleven months, if I remember correctly. It was a calculated risk.

My failure came about when I ran afoul of OSAP rules for absence written specifically for private colleges; three absences per semester disqualify a student. After losing my place at school, I went back to work, though with too little income to match my expenses and my debt. I lost my housing in October, 2007. I’ve been homeless ever since.

It took me about two years to unlearn the biases and preconceptions I’d been raised with about desperate poverty and homelessness. After the shock of my own homelessness wore off, I began to understand how deeply those preconceptions are set in the minds of the average Canadian.

There exist a set of rationalizations around healthy adult homeless men. It’s understood that we are homeless either because of defects in character, or that we ought to be able to struggle our way back to normalcy, dollar by dollar, job by job. It’s an attitude rooted in concepts of work ethic which have no basis in the realities of any modern labour or housing market.

It’s taken me more than a decade to learn there is no existing pathway out of homelessness. In that time I’ve seen most of what is available to help the homeless achieve a return to housing. The shelter-centered approach has never produced sustainable results. For all of these reasons, I decided to crowdsource my way back to housing. There is a bitter (and funny) irony at work here. Homelessness is isolating. Crowdsourcing requires a network of contacts. It’s a conundrum.

With the help of a friend I had known in high school, I was able to take my fundraising efforts to my blog, Homeless Unlimited. I encourage you to visit. There are a number of written pieces I’m (mildly) proud of, as well as videos and an archive of posts originally made to Facebook. Of course, my homelessness determines every aspect of my life, including how I spend my time, so there isn’t as much there as I would like and what is there is not of a quality I am entirely satisfied with. Overall, it’s an effort to introduce myself to people, and connect with them as they learn about the real issues of homelessness. In that, I’ve had some success.

It’s been hard work, connecting with strangers. People carry with them a lot of unexamined beliefs about the homeless. They regularly respond to conversations we’ve had, or posts I’ve made about homelessness by telling me, in a tone meant to indicate I’m doing myself a disservice, that I talk as if there is no hope. Truly, there isn’t. People I’ve spoken to seem shocked to learn that.

There’s a subtle and invidious set of beliefs at work, well-tended by the City of Toronto. The broad public perception of the homeless is that we are wrong-headed, if not outright mentally ill. They believe help is available, and that it’s sufficient to lead to housing and a future. The thinking, if conversations I’ve had over the past fourteen years are representative, is that the homeless who sleep on the street simply do not know where their interests lie. To many people, we are criminal, or stubborn, or broken, or irrationally independent. Challenging those beliefs almost always meets strong resistance. That resistance manifests as an attitude that the homeless ought to be happy to be granted any help at all. Worse, we have no right to refuse anything offered to us. These beliefs are the product of cultural messaging and are reinforced by government policy.

A life homeless is not a life. It is grinding misery, a constant, quiet despair. Time-scale shrinks and narrows to the immediate. Hungry, cold, wet–these are the inputs, the problems which need solving. Dealing with those becomes the breadth and depth of achievable goals. After living that way for a couple of years, it is the universe a homeless person exists in.

I have fought anguish and hopelessness to reach this moment in time. Every day homeless is a defeat. Every day homeless is a day without purpose, without hope, and without a future. Every day homeless for a person is another day of quiet, stagnant, decay. The effect of all that loss on wider society can be difficult to see. With every person entering homelessness, worlds of possibility are lost.

My homelessness has given me the experience and the confidence to take on these challenges. There are no magic bullets, and no Utopia. The structures around poverty and homelessness are broken and must be cleared away. What they will be replaced with is unknown. The alternative, more of the same, is not acceptable.

This is very long for a letter of enquiry. Thank you for your time.

Chris Leach

Additional URLs:

Blog:

www.homelessunlimited.com

Instagram:

www.instagram.com/thiswholethingislame