The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: poverty

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.”

“Do the Reverse”

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WE MET IN A COZY TORONTO CHINESE RESTAURANT along with Scarborough MP John McKay. Muhammad Yunus had won the Noble Peace Prize a couple of years earlier and he had come to Canada to sell the merits of his Grameen Bank – a microcredit organization that has assisted 140 million of the world’s poorest people to start their own businesses. His demeanour was gentle, his wit disarming, but one could easily see he was totally committed to helping the world’s marginalized. Yet he worried as to the direction the financial world was taking. We talked about his home nation of Bangladesh as well as South Sudan, where my wife and I were running a non-governmental organization. I could tell at once that his wisdom was deep, his commitment even deeper. He left me inspired.

Yunus was in Davos a couple of weeks ago listening to world’s elite talk about money, money, money. When asked what he thought of it all, he simply said, “We must do the reverse.” Quizzed as to what he meant, the Nobel Laureate proceeded to walk civilization back from the brink in which it presently found itself.

But first he set the context by observing that the concentration of wealth will come into ever fewer hands – today it’s the 1%, tomorrow it will be half a percent, then one-tenth. It’s not a linear, but an exponential process, Yunus noted, and the general population isn’t in control of any of it.

It’s then that the wise investor from Bangladesh made his insightful and bold insight:

“Everything we have done is the reverse of conventional. They go to the city; we go to the village. They go to men; we go to women. They say people should come to the bank; we say the bank should go to the people. They say you need to be job seekers; we say you need to be job creators. Everything has to be done in the opposite if we are to save ourselves. Everything has to be done in the reverse way.”

Yunus went on to say how following such practices builds better and more stable societies. Whether one is inclined to agree or not, it’s clear that what we presently have is a clear contradiction to what he proposes.

“You can’t see change until you change the way you see,” writes Raimy Diaz. We as citizens are the sum total of our thoughts, and we’ll never change our world until we change the way we think.

Would Martin Luther King Jr. Have Supported the TPP?

 

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU WAS IN DAVOS, SWITZERLAND, at the World Economic Forum yesterday reminding the world’s elite that Canada was a great place in which to invest. That’s exactly what prime ministers are supposed to be doing. The key issue however is how to invest.

Our new Prime Minister has an important decision to make regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal involving 12 countries. Many have warned that this isn’t about trade at all but about the growing ability of corporate business interests to affect domestic policy. The rather stark opposition to the deal from a litany of civil society groups, economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, and the founder of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie – all normally strong promoters of globalization, has been noted. Even the United Nations has come out in opposition, claiming that the deal favours global capital instead of strengthening democracy by removing decision-making away from the average voter. Trudeau’s promise to leverage an increased voice for civil society seems, on the surface at least, to be violated by the TPP deal.

The focus of this week’s blog posts have been on the abiding influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and how he approached vital files like poverty and civil rights. What would he counsel regarding the TPP if he were still present among us. We can’t propose to know the direct answer, but he would provide us some criteria regarding such a major decision. And he would ask questions, serious ones.

He would surely remind us that the rash of trade deals in the last three decades have coincided with the growth of poverty in affluent nations, the lowering of labour standards, a threatening toll on the environment, and a burgeoning disillusionment with government and democracy. He would then challenge us to question if these things were related. The leaders in Davos will hear of the newest research from Oxfam showing that “income and wealth are being sucked up among the elite at a fantastic rate.” The same study will inform them that a mere 62 people have $1.76 trillion (US), or more than half of the world’s population.

These aren’t easy questions, but must be asked, and King would ask them directly. It isn’t just that with fabulous amounts of wealth being created that most of the planet gets little of it in proportion to the wealthy. King would look at this development through the lens of social justice and not mere economics. He would challenge us to do the same. And he would wonder why the world’s governing leaders would continue signing deals that move us down that perilous road. Better yet, he would ask if such deals could effectively be adjusted to solve these problems.

I suspect he would hang his head in disillusionment, sensing that his great dream of equality would have to once again be deferred. He would be aware that most of the political leaders would have quoted him at one point or another during their respective tenures, but that they quietly refused to bring about the changes necessary for the dream to be realized. He would put it in the terms he used during his message at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967):

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people among our decision makers, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Today he would, with justification, add climate change, poverty, democratic decline, and the failure to build gender equality to the list.

Those who maintain that deals like the TPP are ultimately good for us must tell us why past such deals have been unsuccessful in solving these problems. Furthermore, they will have to wonder if such arrangements haven’t actually had a hand in causing them in the first place.

It is always a dangerous thing to suggest what a historical figure would say in the modern era, and I don’t wish to imply whether King would say yes or no. But he would ask the questions and he would wonder if all these economic dealings that benefit a few over the many are arcing our world towards justice or away from it.

Ultimately King was a moral voice and it is that voice that is missing in the halls of both finance and parliaments today. His ethical strains cut through the fog of distortion and spoke truth to the establishment. To his credit, Justin Trudeau claimed such a voice when he brought gender equality to the federal cabinet and when he claimed a new day for the Indigenous people of Canada. These were moral victories, not mere political expediency. Now he must sit down and answer these questions that King would have asked and decide whether to side with civil society and citizens or with the elite money gatherers. No trade deal in the world brings about justice; only acts of conscience are capable of it. And if politics today is to be successful, and democracy itself to be saved, it is time for the latter.

50 Years Ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Said We Had the Resources to End Poverty. What Happened?

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ALL THIS WEEK WE’LL BE LOOKING at the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and if it still has a prevailing effect on the modern era. He had certain core principles he stuck to, elaborated upon, and ultimately died for. We respect him. We quote him. Some even venerate him. But in so many ways we have refused to walk the path he led.

The day following his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King delivered his famous Nobel Lecture titled, “The Quest for Peace.” His reasonings didn’t go in the direction people anticipated. He wondered how we can really have peace, or even maintain it, if we continue to leave large swaths of our populations in poverty. Then he delivered a stark admission:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.”

He was greeted with a huge round of applause on that occasion over 50 years ago, but we must ask ourselves: what happened? How, after the explosion of the global economy, the movement of so many nations towards democracy, and an era of relative peace among nations, can it be that the needle has moved so little on the poverty file? Recent estimates claim that 30% of the world continues to live in poverty and that, in the affluent nations, people suffering in low-income situations are actually on the increase.

The biggest problems faced by the world’s poor are actually lack of the most basic things required for survival – clean water, food, health, shelter, safety, social inclusion, and the opportunity to participate in their own solutions. And yet, for all the wealth presently generated in this world, we can’t deliver on these most fundamental of resources.

If King was right and we had the resources a half-century ago, what do we say now that the world is flushed with cash that accrues increasingly to a small minority? It’s truer now than in his time that the resources are there, and yet we haven’t progressed as a civilization to the point where we can solve the most basic and durable of human problems.

A month prior to his tragic end, King busied himself with planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” – an effort that was predicated upon the belief that civil rights can never be achieved and guaranteed as long as people, especially the vulnerable, don’t have the means to live peacefully and productively. King seemed especially concerned about those living in hunger. Since then we have had the proliferation of food banks, monumental starvation in developing nations, billions of dollars of good food thrown into garbage dumps, and child poverty at stubbornly high levels. What are we thinking? How do we justify it? If King couldn’t do so in his generation, surely we can’t in our own.

Franklin Roosevelt noted during the Great Depression that, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” In all honesty, we have failed that test – which then puts the lie to our belief in inevitable progress.

Martin Luther King Jr. would surely have agreed with Roosevelt’s observation, as he would with that of author John Green: “There is no Them. There are only facets of Us.”

It’s time to stop quoting King and start moving forward on the ethical foundations of what he fought for. Our greatest regret as a generation might be the understanding that in failing to take the road not taken that King offered us, we will never discover the fullness of life that might have been ours if we had learned to share the wealth. Fifty years on and little has changed. Time for a civilization reset.

A Manger’s Long Shadow

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HE APPROACHED US LAST FRIDAY morning during the Day of Giving that Bell Media was running for the London Food Bank. The downtown market was busy but somehow he seemed familiar. He dropped his three bags of groceries into the waiting bin, stopped for a moment, and said quietly to me, “Thanks for all you’re doing for folks. I’ve had to use the food bank during some of the worst moments of my life and I just felt I had to give back.” I asked him for his phone number so we could talk later and then he was off.

When we finally connected later in the day, he told me of how his parents had been killed in a car accident when he was a teen and how he had only known poverty since. He had fallen into substance abuse for a time, even suffering bouts of homelessness, but had pulled himself out of that state, taking on odd part-time work. His fiancée died of an embolism two months previous and he was in a funk. Then he heard of the food drive on the radio and began making his way to the market. He was no longer one of winter’s outcasts, but an abundant giver of groceries out of the little money he had. I hung up the phone, emotional and humbled by his durability and outlook.

For anyone willing to consider the longer arc of that original Christmas narrative, something similar appears. We know that the night in the manger was probably the last of the young family’s peaceful days for some time. Almost overnight they became refugees. On the threat of death they quickly travelled cross-border into Egypt in search of security.

This much we are aware of, but we frequently overlook the words of that child when he got older. Looking out over the beleaguered age and a fearful people, Jesus said, “Do what you can for the least of these.” But then he put his words in context to those days following his birth.

“For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me water. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you provided them.”

He was recalling his refugee days, those moments where only through the help of others could his family survive and he now wanted to give back. He was reminding us that we need to go deeper in order to reach higher – deeper into those moments in our lives where we learned from our parents, a teacher, a lover, a friend, a faith, a circumstance, or a workmate, the value of giving.

In knowing loneliness we have learned to be better companions. In feeling outcast, we have become more welcoming. In failing we have become more understanding of the weaknesses of others. In moments of emotional trauma we have learned to triage our own resources in order to help others heal. We learned all this, not at the knee of Santa, but at the feet of humanity and we are better for it.

We understand that in a world where violence begets violence and destruction follows destruction, something new needs to arise. We are reaching a threshold. Only a great sense of purpose can overcome our fears and change our divided world. We know from experience that without passion nothing happens, but we are witnessing in our own time that without true compassion, the wrong thing happens. In places around the world it is passionate people who are killing for their cause and the more of them there are, the more troubled we become. Only when compassion itself governs our choices can we hope to heal our world.

And that is the moral of this story: let’s be kind and welcoming this holiday season because we have had such privileges afforded to us in the our past. Like the man donating at the market, we have all been shown kindness by others and it is ever our turn to act in similar fashion. The Christmas story continued in the life of Jesus because his manger still cast a long shadow over him. He had been hungry, hunted, and hated but in the most crucial of moments the kindness of strangers turned him into a giving being. Now it’s our turn this Christmas season. It’s not a question of acting different, but of being who we are in our best moments, and we have plenty of those to give.

Merry Christmas, and the most meaningful of holiday seasons to you all.

 

 

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