Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Do something
May 5, 2006

Some of my family members think I write too much about street issues. Maybe. But somebody has to.
One of these days, our children’s children will be struggling to get out from under the social disaster in their city centres, and they’ll order up a royal commission that will lead straight back to us, making one mistake after another in the final years of the 21st century.
I just want to my part to get us thinking about that while there’s still hope of changing things.
Were this a roadway falling apart beneath our feet, we would act quickly and decisively. We’d argue about the costs of the fixup and put off repairs as long as we could - that seems to be human nature - but we’d never let things deteriorate too far. Nobody likes a bumpy, dangerous road.
But bad roads are easier to think about than people whose lives are falling apart. Even though both represent a major problem, the forward thinking and common wisdom that keeps our roads in good repair have yet to become guiding principles of our social endeavours. We’ve been appallingly bad at having social policy of any kind, and even worse at doing any of it consistently. We’ve been adding fuel to the fire for more than 20 years now, so no small wonder that a firestorm is building on the horizon.
Every now and then, you still hear people reminisce of a time when a person could leave their front door unlocked without concern. When downtown visitors didn’t have to worry about someone trying to sell them drugs as they passed by.. When things were “different.”
What has changed since those kinder, gentler times? Us. Everything. The food we eat. The places where our goods come from. The kind of work we do. The world we see on television, and on-line. The number of children we have. The number of times we marry.
Even if we’d been paying attention these last few decades as to what all that change was doing to people, we’d still have had our work cut out for us just to keep up. But in fact, we weren’t paying attention. We weren’t doing anything for long enough to know if it worked, and mostly we weren’t doing anything at all. With the exception of short bursts of doing the right thing - the late-1980s Victoria Health Project comes to mind - we have done virtually nothing for years on numerous social fronts.
If you haven’t been to Streetlink, I recommend that you go. Volunteer. Talk to the people. Spend a few months taking in the environment, and get a sense of what’s going on among the people who frequent the place.
There was a time when a number of them would have been housed in institutions. That’s all over, wiped out back in the 1980s and never really replaced. You can argue the right and wrong of having institutions, but there’s no arguing that the people who used to go to such places now routinely land on the street.
We’ve slashed housing budgets and ignored aboriginal issues. We’ve cut welfare, and stumbled over our child-welfare policies to the point of inadvertently destroying untold thousands of lives by setting in motion a series of disastrous events. We’ve left people to stew in their tragic, debilitating addictions.
Our “hand up” is now a meager, mean one, and the lot of a single parent on assistance is increasingly grim. With that single act, we open the door for another generation that will struggle to thrive, and widen the chasm a little further between rich and poor. We’ve spent great wads of cash and talked up a storm even while barely figuring a single thing out, even while the problems have been multiplying right before our eyes.
We’re neck deep in potholes. And we’re still standing around blaming it all on Streetlink.
We can always pin it on government if we want. It’s so much easier than coming to grips with our collective inertia. I wish it was the government’ fault, too, because then I could still believe in elections as a cure for what ails us.
But really, it’s us. We’ve failed to see the utter disaster of our ways. We got so caught up in our own concerns that we forgot to apply even a fraction of the stewardship given to environmental causes to the vital work of sustaining our people.
Were we to start doing things right tomorrow, my grandchildren’s generation just might be looking back at this one with gratitude for the positive changes we set in motion for them. Some changes would come quickly, but well-managed social policy needs to be looking at least 20 years ahead. We can be the generation that changes the world.
Or we can continue to wait for somebody else to do something about that, and leave it to future generations to pay the steep price. Some legacy.

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