The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: homelessness

The Shelter of Each Other

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THIS CONUNDRUM OF HOMELESSNESS IN CANADA has become an exquisitely painful exercise. Over a number of decades we watched from a distance as it first emerged in our larger cities, then became something of an embarrassment to civic, provincial, and federal leaders. It is a part of the Canadian landscape that we understand doesn’t match our worldwide appeal or our domestic ideals.

At crucial moments during that journey (an excruciating trek for those who are actually homeless) the subtle compromise was reached that it was a problem that needed to be managed as opposed to solved – a subtle admission that the distance between our compassionate ideals and our desire for an affluent life was unbridgeable.

For those living without a secure place for shelter the disillusionment has grown from sad to historic. Almost three decades of promises from all sorts of special commissions, anti-poverty plans, and budget reallocations only resulted in a sense of hopelessness as such plans fell away into failure. Author Craig Stone poignantly expressed the irony in his The Squirrel that Dreamt of Madness: “I want to avoid people because there’s only one thing worse than being homeless, and that’s people who are not, knowing that you are.”

But maybe things are changing. The understanding that the decision to manage homelessness through the use of transitional housing or shelter only resulted in a growing problem is growing in local communities. And a sense of collective failure has grown evident in the knowledge that homeless people themselves are required to jump through endless hoops, checks, program requirements, and interviews.

In London, Ontario, along with many other communities across the world, there is emerging the understanding that leaving people homeless and isolated has merely left them hopeless and insecure. In many of these communities it is now common practice to not only collaborate to find secure housing, but to also provide wraparound services that can be somewhat tailored to the needs and challenges of the person.

It all really comes down to relationships – those between the homeless themselves and those seeking to assist. And it’s a mobile relationship, traveling with the person so as the work through their many challenges on the way to secure and safe housing – an absolutely essential ingredient for those struggling under mental illness and addictions.

It’s vital in all this to understand that such action moves from managing homelessness to actually providing housing – secure environments where individuals, perhaps even with their families, can begin the ongoing process of rebuilding their lives, one step at a time. Peer reviewed studies in the United States have revealed that when the right supports are put in place, nine out of ten clients eventually don’t return to their previous homeless state. This isn’t mere experimentation, but a proven model for sincere change that is more affordable than what presently exists.

But it’s more than that. It’s about entire communities taking back their future in the desire of including every citizen on the way. Many sincere advocates press for at least getting people off the streets and into temporary shelters in the hopes of ending homelessness. It is a process that doesn’t provide a home, but also leaves the individuals without needed supports.

The proper place for those struggling on our streets is not in shelters but in the community by means of secure and supportive housing. It’s this kind of community welcome that can help a homeless individual know that we understand that they require something more than mere walls and a roof. They need a community that enfolds them into its midst by means of integrated programs that care for the entire person. It is time to begin living out the old Irish proverb: “It is in the shelter of each other than the people live.”

Poverty’s Great Unknown (2) – Hiding in Plain Sight

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IN HER BOOK ALPHABET OF THORN, author Patricia McKillip has one of her chief characters ask another: “Do you become invisible?” In reply, the other character says, “No. I’m there, if you know how to look. I stand between the place you look at and the place you see – behind what you expect to see. If you expect to see me, you do.”

This is the way it is with modern poverty; people suffer their deprivations in private, yet they are seen everywhere in every community. They are us, but we don’t really see them. In Canada, we most often can’t be bothered to look for poverty in our midst, but if we truly wanted to, we could spot it – everywhere.

In yesterday’s post we talked about some things we might not know about poverty. Here are some more.

1) According to numerous studies housing affordability is one of the key reasons people remain mired in poverty. By the time rent or mortgage payments are made, little is left to afford anything else. For this reason, affordable housing is key to defeating poverty. Most people don’t realize that it costs more to keep someone in an emergency shelter than it does to provide them affordable housing. Cities could eliminate homelessness simply by investing more in housing.

2) With hunger growing in Canada, so is the amount of food people throw in the garbage. Food Banks Canada says that nearly 900,000 people are assisted in food banks monthly. Yet research from the Value Chain Management Centre revealed that Canadians throw out $27-billion worth each year, or roughly 40% of their food. Just over half comes from households. It forces us to ask a basic question: how can a nation find the will to defeat hunger when it considers it acceptable to throw out 40% of its edible food supplies?

3) Poverty in Canada is likely to increase, not the other way around. According to a recent IPSOS poll, 61% of working Canadians didn’t contribute at all to retirement savings in 2014. To make matters more complicated, the same poll discovered that the ability to keep a steady income is under assault and is listed as a major form of stress for 45% of Canadians. We keep treating poverty as some kind of fixed statistic when, in fact, it’s a moving target, usually drifting ever upward in numbers. In such a context, poverty is far more likely to go up instead of decline. An increasing number of Canadians actually feel they are more prone to falling into poverty’s clutches as opposed to ending it.

4) A startling number of Canadians feel that they have to make a choice between jobs or inequality. The reality is that they are both related and that one can’t be solved without the other. It will be impossible to defeat poverty in this country unless we address the growing rates of inequality. To separate the two, believing we can concentrate on jobs while we ignore the growing gap between the rich and poor is a fool’s errand and a false choice.

5) Perhaps the greatest thing about poverty that we don’t know or understand is that the roots of poverty are to be found in the bankruptcy of politics. Democracy has never been so “poor,” regardless of which jurisdiction you look at.  Democracy is in recession.  Poverty of public spirit and the belief that we can manage our problems is at record lows – a reality that can’t be separated from financial poverty itself.

Those facing poverty aren’t just facing the pitfalls of isolation from a few bad decisions; they find themselves in their present predicament because of the failure of systems-wide policies that ultimately alienate a city from itself, and from those living within it. This is why the poor have become invisible, even though they live among us. But they are there if we but look for them. Once observed, we find that they look surprisingly like us. That is because they are, but it took some knowledge and focus for us to realize it. This is where the fight against poverty must begin: in our understanding that one can’t solve a problem if they refuse to see or organize to defeat it.

Mayors: Poor Choices

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IT’S ALL TOO COMMON FOR CITIES ENDURING DIFFICULT TIMES to resist getting serious about poverty. They place their emphasis on economics, jobs, education, or trade – those aspects that appear more like an investment than a drag on the community like, say, social programs.

But mayors are getting smarter, though it has taken them decades to get around to it. They are comprehending that even a robust economic recovery can be derailed by all those human resources that were left out – unemployed, underemployed, those suffering in mental illness, students, or the homeless. Mayors are paying attention to considerable research showing that the drag on any local economy from sustained poverty could ultimately derail any meaningful recovery or more prosperous future.

As a result, we are now hearing of more robust initiatives from the mayoralty level than we have seen in decades.

  • Last month, the mayors of North Carolina’s largest cities met for a summit on the alarming growth of poverty in the region. In fact, they have organized a series of high-level summits to get their collective head around the problem and deliver results. The hope is to meet quarterly and move from city to city. The session will begin with a meeting with faith leaders from the various cities because of their extensive work in assisting the poor.
  • Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary has called together the city’s best minds, along with those living through real experiences of poverty, to come up with “one big idea” to pull the municipality together in order to eliminate poverty and homelessness.  “The system could be working better,” he says.  “While it’s true that much of this is in the responsibility of the federal and provincial governments, somebody has to take leadership and my office will take on that responsibility.” The challenges will be huge, but he has set two years as the time frame for coming forward with solutions.
  • A few months ago, at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the “Cities of Opportunity Task Force,” that will bring together mayors from across America to leverage the power of municipal governments to advance a national strategy, led by cities, to fight poverty and create equity. “Poverty is a threat to our fundamental values and an obstacle to the nation’s growth, but it is being lived out in cities and we will be the problem solvers and centers of innovation to find solutions. As mayors, we are on the front lines; it is our responsibility.”
  • This year the city of Edmonton started its own mayor’s task force for similar reasons. It’s comprised of leaders from various sectors. As Edmonton Mayor Don Ivison puts it: “Shifting poverty from charity delivery to practical solutions is what we are fighting for, and we are excited about it.” Ivison had made this a commitment during his election campaign and is as good as his word. Leadership is coming from various levels, but it is his ability to bring the entire community together that has infused the effort with a new sense of hope and commitment.

You can see where this is heading – mayors are stepping up, not with mild or aspirational talk, but with commitment and hard work towards tackling poverty itself. This shouldn’t be of any surprise, because the deepest issues for people struggling on the margins are being lived out hundreds of thousands of times each day in our cities. This will not be solved if mayors don’t seize the opportunity and demonstrate to senior levels of government the human resources that lie in their own respective communities.

As that guru of cities development, Richard Florida, put it recently: “Poverty remains an endemic part of our life, shaping everything from our politics to our health and happiness. Overcoming it requires nothing less than a new set of institutions and a wholly new social compact.”

He might as well have added one thing more – a wholly different breed of mayors to lead the charge. Poverty is not merely a blight on our cities; it is a deep and chronic failure of human imagination and willpower.

Cities: Democracy’s Shadow Side

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ONLY THREE MONTHS AGO, MOST OF US WERE TAKEN UP with the plight of over 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. The number of celebrities, politicians, and average citizens who used the hashtag #Bringbackourgirls numbered in the hundreds of thousands – the majority of whom lived in cities around the world. Today very few us know what happened to those abducted, in part because what had become something of a brief fad couldn’t really compete with some dedicated criminals and militants who simply outlasted the outcry.

Just for clarity, here’s what we know now. The girls haven’t been returned, despite much talk and some action about securing them. Some sources now say their whereabouts is now totally unknown. And Boko Haram is now stronger and more belligerent than a few months ago, despite all the public outcry that once was. Perhaps tragically, we’ve moved on.

It remains a very difficult thing to maintain an interest in problems when our lives are so busy and transitional. Cities can easily add to that pace because of the speed at which they move and the crowding of issues that can get at us from so many venues.

In fact, some of our most entrenched human problems are intensified in our cities, more than anyplace else. There comes a point where realities like homelessness, poverty, mental health and addictions, pollution, and joblessness can no longer be hidden behind some institution or in some policy manual. In fact, cities often become the breeding grounds of despair and cynicism. And we just let it continue, despite the occasional awareness campaign, because … well, what can you do?

For many of us, cities come to mean home and work, friendship and prosperity. But for others it becomes the exact opposite of these things. For all their potential, cities can not only make such problems worse by ignoring them, but by permitting them to fester so that they multiply and become embedded in city life. It is a reality, as Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi noted, that, “Cities have inequality and wealth by definition: the reason they are cities is because people come from different parts of the income scale.” That is clearly true, but entrenched civic problems can often take on a different face – isolation, racism, depression, feelings of alienation, and feelings of helplessness.

It is often for this reason that candidates in civic elections fail to focus on such difficulties in their campaigns – there are no simple solutions to such things. And yet any good mayor comes to understand that cities also carry within them the capacities to combat and overcome such complications. No municipality can be successful if it doesn’t house such agents for change and a shrewd political leader will incorporate them into any plan to improve a city.

At the time of this writing, one black Muslim man, Mo Salih, who by all accounts has run an energetic and fully respectful effort, found himself the object of negative chicanery and personal attacks in the London civic campaign. Opponent’s signs were placed directly in front of his own, but such things sadly happen in campaigns by dubious organizers and volunteers. It was much worse than that, however, as his faith, colour, and country of origin all came in for some kind of innuendo. For a time he kept it respectfully to himself, but when the practice didn’t cease, he finally went public, as when he told the London Free Press:

“I didn’t want the youth — a young black Muslim boy or girl — thinking they’d face these kinds of things” in politics, he said. “In the unlikely event that I lose, I didn’t want them to think I lost because of my faith.”

This story reveals what all cities often attempt to conceal. A good candidate running for mayor should immediately be all over it, speaking out against such practices. The amount of support generated for Mo Salih has now become significant – a clear sign that a dynamic might exist to counter racism or innuendo and that could overpower such negative characteristics. That should be heartening for any good mayoralty candidate, for it represents the very mandate he or she could plumb in efforts to move the city along a more progressive path.

The task of restoring public faith in institutions, fellow citizens, and meaningful values might well be said to be one of the chief tasks of any elected official. As this recent case in London has revealed, a rather sinister action can result in an opposite and sometimes greater reaction that can put a city on a sounder footing. Often such moments are never capitalized upon because political leaders, often mayors, miss the opportunity.

The worst human traits are most often revealed in cities. The fact that campaigns can take place with little mention of such issues likely means that candidates are proving they aren’t up to the task of governing. Such negative influences exist to be tackled, overcome, and eventually minimalized as a city moves forward. If a candidate doesn’t have the courage or imagination to tackle the worst in our community, then it’s likely they’ll never bring out the best.

Enough Already

‘GREAT THINGS ARE NOT ACCOMPLISHED BY THOSE who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”  So said American poet Jack Kerouac.  I wonder what he’d think of the latest trend of taking selfies in front of homeless people.  Never mind; we already know.  He’d be disgusted.  Fortunately, he would also be angered, and in such a state would want to do something about it. Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 8.45.06 PM

In Europe, America and now Canada, it’s become the big thing – find someone down and out, living on the streets, take a selfie of yourself in front of the person on your cellphone, and then broadcast it out to all your friends.  I know, it’s stupid and insensitive.  But more than that, it speaks to just what we are willing to accept in the modern era.  No permission is ever asked of the person in the street.  The joy is in the placing of oneself in the centre of the frame, not of assisting the struggling and anonymous person in the background.  Just as we take pictures of floods or hurricanes without ever connecting them to the environmental conditions that cause them, so we have entered an era where it’s cool, not to be homeless, but to get your photos captured in front of people who represent the fallout of materialism and a narcissistic society.

In Canada, five out of ten people are two pay cheques away from being without a home, and yet we remain so oblivious of that fact that we merely shake our head in dismay at those who would capture a fleeting moment of photographic fame in front of someone fallen on hard times.

Television celebrity, Anderson Cooper, was aware of this troubling trend in selfie satisfaction, but gave it little thought.  In fact, he confesses to being “annoyed” by a homeless man outside of his door in New York City.  “I just ignored him.  I just pretended he wasn’t there.”  Then, for a “60-Minutes” segment, he did a story about the chronically homeless and saw firsthand the demeaning nature of his own prejudice.  It unnerved him.  “When I finished the story and thought of that man outside my door, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.  This is my issue.  Me pretending not to see this person is insane and offensive.”  He decided to approach the man, an awakening that now causes him to view homelessness through “a different lens.”

Then there is the moving story of 10-year old Natalia Marsh-Welton.  Suffering from a brain tumor, she confessed to getting cold while undergoing chemotherapy.  “I’m cold all of the time,” she says.  “Imagine how cold people without homes must be.”

And then Natalia did a remarkable thing.  With a local chef, she concocted a soup she labeled, “Chef Natalia’s Soup of Love” and began feeding the homeless in her hometown of Cincinnati.  Her own prognosis could easily have drawn attention, but instead Natalia placed herself in the background and brought to public attention the demanding circumstances of the city’s homeless.  Her touching efforts don’t even belong in the same universe as the insensitive “selfies” crowd.

Poverty is hardly some kind of canvas upon which we can paint our own designs.  It represents the dashed hopes, forgotten dreams, and quiet despair of hundreds of thousands among us, and who this country has forgotten.  Worse, modern poverty is about hunger, mental illness, dependency, bitter loneliness, unemployment, broken hearts, no place to live, and no money to feed the children.  Such people are not mere pieces of tapestry occupying some bland background to our busy lives; they are the failure of our dedication to citizenship and country.  They represent our absolute loss of imagination when it comes to politics, capitalism, and their capabilities.  Ultimately, they speak to our inability to build inclusive communities and empathetic humanity.

This isn’t merely about forgetfulness, or, in the case of selfies, even heartlessness.  It’s about the failure of a country and the abject condition of our official policy.  The fact that an increasing number of veterans are filling the ranks of the homeless only adds to this sense of national shame.

Let’s not merely give to those organizations dealing with this blight.  Let’s get to work behind our desks, blogging, tweeting, texting, and exhorting ourselves to building the kind of politics and public space that not only gets the homeless into productive lives, but gets people out from being in front of the camera and into the highways and byways of our communities where they can fight for inclusion in our city streets.

“To perceive is to suffer,” Aristotle said.  Let’s lose our penchant for making ourselves the centre of our own individual universe and build communities bonded in anguish for those lost among us.  That’s a picture I’d love to see.

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