Let's look at this realistically.

Why journalism doesn't matter ~ Hamilton Spectator

Why journalism matters by Paul Berton 19 January, 2013
Today's front-page story is another example of how news agencies hold our institutions to account

Like so many other great newspaper stories, the article on today's front page originated in an unmarked envelope delivered to The Spectator just before Christmas.

It is, quite frankly, the kind of thing that makes journalists salivate, so I put a big exclamation mark on the envelope and passed it along to Spectator editors.

But such packages are often too good to be true.

These things are always difficult to investigate, usually complicated to write, and often dangerous to publish.

In this case, at least some of the allegations appear to have substance. Late Friday, just as The Spectator was putting the finishing touches on a major article summarizing the story to date, the university announced the executive director of the association has been fired, and existing board members say they will not stand for re-election.

What happened? Was it the result of The Spectator's investigation?

Did it come about because of a series of front-page stories by reporter Matthew Van Dongen? Did the university act Friday because it knew another big story with new revelations was being published Saturday?

Or did the investigation, started seven months ago by the board and the university, just happen to conclude Friday that action was needed now?

Neither the association's executive director, the association board, nor the university itself have been particularly helpful. Van Dongen has been met with roadblocks or stonewalling on too many occasions.

Now the university is promising to ensure more accountability and transparency on the part of the association. We can only hope so.

The university, like so many other public institutions, has a history of guarding information closely, even if it is public. Taxpayers pay daily and dearly for public servants to gather information and share it for the benefit of all, and too often those public servants are somehow instructed, encouraged or simply conditioned to keep it hidden away.

That was certainly the case here.

If we had not begun investigating weeks ago, would the university, which knew about this issue months ago, have taken the action it did Friday? Did our source lose faith in the university's ability or willingness to act? What took them so long indeed?

This story demonstrates again how news agencies can hold public organizations to account, why we need journalists to ask tough questions and to persevere, and how journalism can improve our institutions, save us money, expose incompetence and improve efficiency.

Today's article demonstrates one other important thing: journalists rely on individuals, sometimes brave individuals, to help us do our jobs.

The grim reality of homelessness by Molly Hayes 30 April, 2015
For the first time, Hamilton has established a concrete baseline for tackling homelessness - one that sheds light on alarming barriers facing our transient neighbours.

After face-to-face interviews with almost 500 homeless individuals across the city, we know now that 40 per cent of those surveyed said they have been attacked or beaten up since becoming homeless - and that 20 per cent have been forced into doing things they didn't want to do.

And we know now that 47.6 per cent have "tri-morbidity," which means they suffer from mental and physical health issues, as well as substance abuse issues.

"Let me boil down the results: there are people in Hamilton who are going to die unless we house them," says Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH).

As a result of the data, housing staff have highlighted 109 names - the most severely at-risk - to be bumped to the top of the list for the city's planned 121 new housing placements this year.

In a special presentation at City Hall Thursday afternoon, staff released the data obtained this week through the 20,000 Homes campaign - a CAEH project that aims to get 20,000 of Canada's most vulnerable homeless people successfully housed by July 2018.

Hamilton was one of three cities chosen as a pilot Registry Week before the full national launch this summer.

More than 150 volunteers hit the pavement this week to conduct surveys with individuals, which were then turned around into "immediately actionable data" for the city and local housing agencies.

Roughly 470 homeless individuals agreed to be surveyed, which Richter acknowledges is just a drop in the bucket considering we know 3,115 people used emergency shelters in Hamilton last year.

"This is not a ... census, or a study or, you know, an awareness-raiser. This is a community-wide housing intervention," he says. "This is not designed to count homeless people."

What this will do, he says, is allow agencies to get to know our homeless neighbours by name and prioritize their need for housing based on their risk of death from homelessness.

Amanda Di Falco, the city's manager of homelessness policy and programs, agrees - and says the findings have given staff "a strong sense of who we're aiming to serve ... and how to best do that."

Of those surveyed, 62 per cent said they do not have enough money to meet their needs.

Andi Broffman, manager of data and performance and knowledge sharing at Community Solutions Inc. (who devised the survey that was used), likens the next stage of the process to a triage - the goal is an efficient prioritization of resources.

"We always liken it to an emergency room, a triage situation," Broffman said - for example, someone coming in with chest pains would be dealt with differently than someone with a cut on their hand.

Similarly with homelessness, needs are not equal.

"There is a finite pool of resources," she says. "We want people with the highest level of need to receive the highest level of services."

It also helps put names and faces to our homeless population, and offer a glimpse into the barriers faced by marginalized groups. For example, more than a quarter of Hamilton's respondents identified as aboriginal. Thirty per cent of respondents were women; 19 per cent were 25 or younger.

Coun. Aidan Johnson calls the number of aboriginal respondents "staggering ... given that only two per cent of the Canadian population is First Nations, the disproportionate equation there is a shock."

Katrina Gervais, 45, who was once homeless herself, says it's important to remember that homeless women are often "hidden."

She spoke Thursday about the difference having a home has made in her life, sharing her journey from homelessness to transitional living to her own subsidized apartment.

"Everybody thinks it's temporary," she says - couch surfing or crashing at a friend's place. "You won't see as many women sleeping rough."

Now that this information is public, Richter says it's time for action. In addition to getting the people housed, Richter says the hope is the community will mobilize to put pressure on the government to create a national housing strategy.

Tom Cooper, director of Hamilton's Roundtable on Poverty Reduction, is ready in advocacy mode: "It's really going to be about next steps … (homelessness has) turned into a national crisis and we need national action."

Local agencies and city staff - including the city's manager of homelessness policy and programs, Amanda Di Falco - are excited and ready to keep rolling.

"We're not starting from scratch," she says.

Hamilton was chosen to be a pilot city because of its track record as a national leader in Housing First initiatives.

Last year alone, 102 men and 46 women were housed through Hamilton's Housing First programs - Transitions to Home (T2H) for men and Supporting our Sisters (SOS) for women.

"We are all collectively responsible to ensure people are housed," Di Falco says.

For Richter, the project is bittersweet. He is struck every time by how willing people are to tell their stories. But he's also struck by "just how sick some people are. People suffering with brain injuries, mental illness, medical problems and addictions all at once ...

"And frankly, every time I do this I get angry ... just the pain that so many of these people are in ... and it just really pisses me off that this happens in our cities."

GYFHAS Hogtown, Ontario, Canada E-mail: