By Jim Bell, CEO, Siloam Mission

** This column first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press **

Would you rather be wealthy or healthy?

One thing the coronavirus pandemic has made clear is that no earthly treasure can compare to having a clean bill of health.

Most people with white collar jobs and sit very comfortably in the middle class have had an easier time weathering — and surviving — the pandemic. They can work from home or, in the case of job loss, usually have savings to see them through some leaner months.

And low-income people, including many essential workers, who already had poorer health outcomes, are bearing the brunt of the caseload in hot spots like New York and elsewhere.

But at the end of the day, the virus is just as deadly regardless of the balance in your bank account. If you get infected, no amount of money or possessions or assets will help you beat the disease quicker — if at all.

The pandemic caused all of us to think more about the health of our families, children and grandchildren. In my case, it’s also helped me better understand the plight of our city’s homeless.

The fact is that if it wasn’t for our health, many of us would struggle to survive.

What would you do if you didn’t have a job to go back to tomorrow? If a debilitating disability caused you to have a hard time coping with everyday life? If a crushing mental illness spiraled you into a deep depression and you couldn’t even muster the energy to get out of bed in the morning?

Without a strong support system around you, chances are you would lose everything. I know I would.

And for those who end up losing everything, getting back their health is the best chance they have at getting back their life.

We often talk about helping people experiencing homelessness move forward in life by providing housing and jobs.

And for good reason.

If we, one of the richest nations on earth, can help our most vulnerable get back on their feet by providing safe and affordable housing, along with employment training to help them enter the workforce again, we could effectively end homelessness.

But all of that would be for naught if we didn’t address the health of our vulnerable people first.

What good is a home if you are too sick to take care of yourself?

What good is being qualified to work if you can’t make it through a shift — or even to your shift in the first place?

The Winnipeg Street Health Report in 2018 revealed that over 50% of people experiencing homelessness regularly feel pain, and over 60% struggle with some kind of mental health condition.

At Siloam Mission, we know that more than 50% of people who end up on our doorstep looking for help are struggling with mental health illnesses — often times depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

That’s why any strategy to end homelessness needs to include a strategy to end the physical and mental health epidemic plaguing our homeless population.

It’s not an easy challenge to solve.

While we are making strides, we are still working on how to properly address mental health in our general population. It is much more challenging to address mental health in our vulnerable population that also struggles with addictions and physical and cognitive disabilities.

But if we can meet this very moment in time — a new and highly contagious virus spreading around the globe — with creativity and resolve, we can solve almost anything.

And while I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic, I appreciate how it has made us reflect on what’s most important in life.

I believe that for most of us, our support systems and our health are at the very top of the list.

Because no matter how wealthy we might be, our real treasure is our health.