By Mark Vander Vennen
My wife and I have lived in our home for 30 of its 100 years. As happens in the life of families, our needs have changed over time, so we are undertaking a small renovation: removing a closet wall in an upstairs bedroom, and replacing the last of our old “knob and tube” electrical wiring.
Well, we thought this would be a “small” renovation. I guess it’s not “small” if we are rearranging the furthest corner of our basement because of it, even as every room in the house is changing to accommodate this “small” renovation. And we are in the midst of schlepping and reviewing boxes and boxes of old photographs and children’s report cards, having to make decisions about each item.
Truly, we are living out our own version of the whimsical children’s story Momma Buy Me a China Doll, where a simple request by a little girl to her mom for a china doll causes her father to have to sleep with the horse in the barn, and the kittens to sleep with the chickens, and her grandma to sit with the pigs in the pig pen.
Our little home has become living proof of the interconnectedness of all things.
Now there is dust everywhere, nothing is where it used to be, and here is the bottom line: I don’t like it. This renovation gives me an unsettled feeling; things feel gray. Home is not what it used to be or should be. Something deep is shifting, and it is most unpleasant. I wish the whole thing would go away, and I can’t wait for home to feel like home again.
These feelings of mine may be real. But they pale completely in the face of an escalating social, physical and mental health crisis surrounding us everywhere: the rising unaffordability of a home, whether rented or purchased, and the accompanying rise of homelessness.
In the town where I live, as in most communities in Ontario (both urban and rural), the vacancy rate for apartments is essentially 0%. That means that rents have been able to go astronomically high. Apartment rents are typically more per month than the total monthly payment one would receive if someone were on a disability pension, and far more than other forms of social assistance—meaning, not only can someone not afford rent, there is no money at all available for food and other basic needs. At every mental health service delivery planning table that I sit at, this is the number one pressing concern—and it’s a concern for which there appear to be no solutions.
Almost every day in the media there is a new news story about today’s housing crisis. Many stories focus on the fact that too often two-parent families with both parents working full-time cannot afford basic rent, much less consider owning a home (for one example, click here). And housing insecurity is no longer just a “big city” problem; it has become just as much a small town and rural community problem.
It is beyond my scope or expertise to try to describe how we got here, much less what the structural solutions may need to be to resolve this very real crisis. I can’t speak to the appeal of real estate as a safe investment decision for people who are already wealthy, to maximize their financial gain even at the expense of the possibility of home for others. I simply want to contrast my own minor mental health unsettledness because of temporary changes in my home to the life-changing mental health impacts of rising substandard housing and homelessness on adults, children, youth and families. Surely, no mental health strategy worth its weight today can approach mental health without also addressing housing and home.
And I want to ask some questions. What will it take for us as a society to turn towards each other? To recognize that my well-being is bound up in your well-being? To see that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest ultimately leads to the undoing of myself?
I am reminded of the title of Pope Francis’ Encyclical about climate change: Our Common Home. I am grateful for neighbourhood and community efforts to help to sustain our common home through adequate housing (and thereby dramatically improve mental health), such as the Green Wood Coalition, Shalem’s WrapAround and RE-create programs, Indwell, efforts like the long-standing Catholic Worker movement, and many others, all of which are dealing with the housing crisis, one person and family at a time, often supported by a perspective of faith.
Indeed, “homecoming” is a deep, fundamental, basic human longing and need, and it figures centrally in the narrative arcs of all the major world religions, Christianity included.
So I wonder: what can I do, what action can I take? Spurred on by our “small” renovation, I am trying to find some answers.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network and Co-Director of Wrap Canada’s WrapAround Training Institute.