New data on homelessness emerged last week and immediately competed for front page attention – some 200,000 Canadians every year are affected by homelessness, with a hefty price tag of 7 billion dollars. This was the first ever national report on homelessness and the findings spell deep trouble for our communities, especially our cities.
Perhaps it’s time that we just admit that citizens are expecting this to be an ongoing reality – a troubling shift. Worse still is the fact that our leaders – political, economic, social – are now planning for poverty – it’s enmeshed in our economic system and there are no plans for alleviation. A proper remedial place for tackling this troubling issue within the realm of public policy goes wanting for a lack of political will – the presence of homelessness has no home in our public mindset. Alberta (Edmonton specifically) gets good marks for its efforts, but in our national narrative homelessness has grown out of all proportion.
My friend, economist Amine Yalnizyan, recently defined these changes as “socialized losses and privatized gains.” There we have it, spelled out in black and white. This condition isn’t happening willy-nilly, but is the natural effluent emerging from a financial design that thinks less and less about public policy and the cost to society of not dealing with problems such as homelessness. The costs of pursuing such a course are now becoming clearer.
Americans woke up recently to learn that their nation’s wealthy gained $5.6 trillion in the recent recovery, while the remainder had to deal with the loss of $669 billion. This didn’t sit well, but what was troubling was that no one in the Establishment thought to question the current course of action. Something similar is happening in this country.
There appears to be no plan in any of the Western nations to deal with a global financial system that has gone awry – everything is just tinkering. Since this is a given, we might as well ‘fess up’ and admit that realities like homelessness and poverty have become the new weapons of mass destruction. Entire sectors of our society are growing more lost and disconnected everyday, despite all the wealth and technological potential.
By permitting homelessness to become a kind of abstraction, a moving target of formulas, numbers and graphs, Canadians have assumed it to be something like a mathematical problem. That’s okay for a time, but if, following two decades of inaction, homeless numbers surge and public policy refuses to deal with it, it takes on the form of lost imagination. And for any nation the loss of the ability to dream and picture the benefits and pains of others is the sign of another kind of impoverishment altogether.
At the London Food Bank we are increasingly dealing with people who lost their homes through economic pressures. Imagine it. How do you now house your kids? What about your pets, or all those precious possessions you acquired when your parents passed them on to you? Where do you store your winter clothes, and with no car, how do you get your kids, or even yourself, to those amenities that often provide a few moment’s relief in a hard life? Husbands and wives or partners often feel their relationship slipping away because of the inability to find a place to just “be”.
The reality is that a home was never just a location or the city you lived in. It is those things which provided meaning, healing, direction, and support for daily living. It’s where the people we love resided and where we came together. It wasn’t so much a room but a moment in time where we found one another. More moments could be strung together in such a place and a kind of communal life and hope could be established that permitted us to go through the ups and downs of life as people who care for each other. It was a shelter to nurse our wounds, a museum for our past, a classroom for our learning, a bed for our intimacy, a launching point for our dreams, and a proof of our existence. It was a place from which we could leave and a destination to which we could return.
In every real and viable instance a secure place to live is perhaps the most fundamental necessity for human existence. Home is not just a place but a hopeful condition, from which all the challenges of life can be faced and hopefully overcome. It is hard to locate the desires of our heart when it is ever hovering, unable to land, unable to rest, unable to abide. Above all, home is an ache – like love or memory. Without it we lose our sense of belonging and the validity of our being alive.
In our house, I sense immediately when Jane or the kids head out on their various excursions and in that moment they are missed. I feel a sense of loss, of a desire to put the kettle on as soon as Jane gets back, or to dance with the kids when they return. Having a home means knowing when someone has left and yearning for their return.
In Canada today we have some 200,000 of our citizens who sense that no one cares that they are alone in communities of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people. It remains one of our great national tragedies – no place for the marginalized in our “home and native land”.