Councillor Andrea Reimer and the Shifting Paradigm of Homelessness

Photo of City Councilor Andrea Reimer courtesy of andreareimer.typepad.com.

VO: You were actually homeless as a teenager, but you managed to get off the streets and take on a successful career. How has your background affected your approach to politics? 

Reimer: A lot. But, I think the majority of elected officials are impacted by life experiences. I've realized that everyone has a story. Most people's lives have been touched by challenges such as, poverty, disempowerment or mental health issues. I think my colleagues can imagine what it is like to be homeless, and I think that they have compassion.  

I believe that as a benchmark, you should judge a society not by how far ahead you get, but how far behind you can get. It is important to look at the very last person in the line of society. We must ask ourselves: What's the floor we are willing to live with as a society?  

I don't think there are a lot of people who have been pretty much at the floor and then end up in elected positions. I think there is a sort of visceralness of having actually slept on concrete, which allows a deeper understanding of what it means to be homeless.  

There is an advantage and a disadvantage to this understanding. I am careful to prioritize evidence-based policy.

VO: Can you explain the everyday reality you were faced with when you were homeless?

Reimer: One thing you do when you live on the street is wait in line...all day. From the moment you are woken up from a noise, a smell, or the sun, you go to the first line that you can find for food, laundry, social assistance, or a shower. 

It is disempowering to not have a home that you can build your life around, but it is even more disempowering to be waiting in long lines all the time, wondering if what you need will still be there when you get to the front of the line. There are only so many loaves of bread, for example. If they run out, you have to find another line somewhere else.

VO: In your opinion, what would be the perfect model for shelters and housing?

Reimer: I would love to see no line-ups. The line-up represents that in order to eat, you must submit to the will of whoever is providing you with food. I know that all sounds ungrateful. However, it is important for people to conceptualize what it would be like waiting in line several times a day, at specific times, and often not receiving whatever it was you were waiting for.  

It would be ideal to have a place where people could come at any time of day, where they could self organize, work in the kitchen, eat off reusable plates, and be involved in the clean-up. It would also be great to have a garden where they could grow their own food.  

The same principles apply to housing. If you get a hundred people together into a housing situation like Dunsmuir House and create democracy regarding the organization of the housing, chores and rules, you are providing people with a life, rather than just housing. 

VO: Can you expand on these ideological changes?

Reimer: We need to adapt a different perception of human needs. The Maslow Heirarchy of Needs has influenced commonly held beliefs surrounding human needs. However, I prefer the model that Manfred Max-Neef provided. He said that human needs do not fit into a hierarchy. The nine basic human needs are all on par. If you give someone food and sustenance, but then take away their dignity, creativity or democracy through this process, you haven't accomplished anything.  

A major human need is compassion, and the ability to give compassion. In some situations, service providers are only meeting their own needs for providing compassion, and this process can be quite disempowering for the recipients of these services. 

It is also important that services are provided without pushing a religion or a belief structure, because this is extremely disempowering. Homelessness is the antithesis of security. Therefore, it is exploitative to impose a belief structure within these situations.


VO: BC housing makes final decisions regarding the actual construction of housing. What can the city do independently?

Reimer: It is really a matter of how you do it. The HEAT shelters we set up functioned with an innovative format. The line-ups are inevitable. However, within these shelters, everyone participated in designing rules and chores, so that they can participate in their own lives. They also had a flexible eating schedule. 

In addition to providing simple challenges, it is also important to provide choices, such as what blanket you put on your bed. It sounds so simple, but we do this in our own homes every single day.  

Whether we're providing food at the Gathering Place or the HEAT shelters etc., it is so important to make this an empowering process. It isn't simply a dollar issue. It's more of a culture issue. 

VO: What is an example of how culture is shifting? 

Andrea: There is a huge movement regarding food right now. This is happening with the food bank, The Portland Hotel Society and the community gardens. The movement is all about finding ways to provide people with the framework they need to feed themselves, rather than simply giving them food. And that's very cool. 

There are those who criticize this model as warm and fuzzy. However, food and shelter are not subservient to liberty. I have seen evidence over and over again, in real life and in research. The evidence supports these concepts.  

There have been studies in the US regarding prison populations, where they grew their own food. It is so amazing how violence and riots almost disappear when inmates begin growing food. It is not only an empowering process to grow your own food, but it is also a very nurturing process. If you're coming from the inner city of east LA, chances are you haven't had the experience of nurturing something for six months. 

VO: The Vision Party has been changing the format of public engagement through technologies such as FACEBOOK and TWITTER. Do you think that technology and open source media will help to bridge generation gaps between politicians and younger generations?

Andrea: I've been involved in politics since I was thirteen. I get endlessly annoyed when people say that young people aren't politically active, because it isn't true. Young people are marching, rallying, talking, texting, using FACEBOOK writing blogs and using TWITTER. Older generations can't see this as politically active because they think it isn't relevant. I think technology can bridge generation gaps. 

In terms of open source information, we are still working on the framework in terms of policies and legality. As we build the framework, we also have to become more culturally aware that information now moves very quickly.  

Right now, City Hall is only relevant to you if you have a high tolerance for extremely formal protocol and long meetings. People shouldn't have to sit through four hours of council meetings so that they can have the opportunity to speak for five minutes. If we can exchange information faster through new technologies…why not?

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