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Homelessness activist comes to Yellowknife
American wants to revolutionize the way we think about the issue

Sarah Ferguson
Northern News Services
Published Friday, July 22, 2011

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - Mark Horvath wants to give homeless people in the North a voice - and he is driving all the way from Los Angeles to Edmonton and then flying to Yellowknife to do it.

"I actually wanted to drive (to Yellowknife), but the guys at the Calgary Homelessness Foundation said driving on the Northern roads might not be the best idea, so I'm flying up instead," Horvath said with a laugh, while speaking by phone from Edmonton.

Horvath, who began his tour of Canada in late June, will be in Yellowknife from July 24-26 to collect stories from Yellowknife's homeless population as part of a Canadian tour co-ordinated by the Calgary-based foundation. The goal of the tour is to build a Canadian alliance to end homelessness, and the activist says the Canadian North is an important component of that plan.

"I heard from Tim Richter, CEO of the Calgary Homelessness Foundation, that if I wanted to see the truth about the homelessness issue in Canada, I needed to come to Yellowknife to see it first-hand," Horvath said.

He will be visiting several homeless shelters while he is in town, including the Centre for Northern Families and the Salvation Army. He will also be meeting with the Yellowknife Homelessness Coalition during his stay.

Lydia Bardak, executive director of the John Howard Society, which manages the city's day shelter, says Horvath's visit cannot come soon enough.

"Yellowknife is a small city, and the homelessness issue here has many layers - many of the homeless here suffer from disabilities, they have also suffered from heavy substance abuse problems which have caused brain development issues, and many of the shelters in this city are overloaded," Bardak said. "The Centre for Northern Families usually has anywhere from 18 to 25 people come through every night, and the YWCA's five emergency units are always full."

Bardak, a city councillor, also says that keeping track of Yellowknife's homeless population is a challenge.

"Most statistics about the homeless are based on government census, but the government won't take a census on a person who doesn't have a home - they don't go to tents or stairwells to talk to a homeless person, so we have no real record of how many homeless people are living here," she said. "We have a shortage of housing in this country and we have a prime minister who is more interested in building prisons than housing for the homeless."

"In national projects, the North is often forgotten and Northern homelessness is a real concern," agreed Barry Davidson, director of the Calgary Homelessness Foundation. "There are some big issues in the North such as aboriginal and women's homelessness - Mark wants to bring them to light."

Richter says that Horvath's visit to Yellowknife is a timely one.

"Right now, Yellowknife is beginning to experience the "boom town" economy that Calgary experienced a decade ago, when we had the highest rates of homelessness in Canada," he said.

Richter said he hopes that Horvath's visit to Yellowknife will lead to the development of a so-called 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness here. "The 10-year plan to end homelessness" was first developed in the United States in 2002, he said.

"The idea is that homelessness should be eliminated, not treated as a ongoing problem," he explained. "The entire province of Alberta has adopted this type of plan - now Calgary has un-needed space in its homeless shelters and Edmonton was able to reduce its homeless population by 23 per cent in two years because of it."

Horvath, meanwhile, hails from upstate New York and is an internationally recognized activist. He also has a personal connection to the issue of homelessness because, in the mid-1990s, he was forced to live on the street twice.

"In 1995 the economy got bad, I got laid off and things got worse," he said. "I rebuilt my life, but ended up on the street again - (and) after the second time, I took to the streets with my camera and that became the foundation for my website

"I want to put a human face on the issue of homelessness in Canada and North America," Horvath added. "Governments need to understand that homelessness is about real people."

In 2010, Horvath's site boasted 2.3 million video views and an average of 50,000 visits per month. He said he hopes his website, which contains uncensored accounts of the lives of the homeless across Canada and the U.S., becomes the main instrument in a movement to revolutionize the concept of homelessness in North America.

"We need to adopt new ways of thinking about homelessness," he said.

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