Sunday, October 21, 2007

Homeless solution rests with all of us
Oct. 19, 2007

Up until I read that damn Frances Piven and her research into social change, I was certain that a bright new day was just around the corner in terms of people living sick, homeless and desperate on our streets.
The darkest days are just before the storm, I’d tell myself. People wouldn’t take it for much longer.
The better part of a decade has passed since I first had that thought, prompted by a walk through Vancouver’s tragic Downtown Eastside. But the street situations in Vancouver and Victoria have worsened significantly since then, and I’m still waiting for that storm.
Fortunately, a friend pointed me toward Piven’s 1979 book Poor People’s Movements earlier this year, and I saw in its pages the error in my thinking.
Piven and co-author Richard Coward looked at U.S. movements that had sprung up over the last century around issues such as welfare rights, unemployment insurance, and civil rights for American blacks. In each case, change only happened when several highly specific factors came into play all at the same time - few of which are evident when it comes to homelessness.
Violent protest and economic disruption were essential aspects in the movements Piven and Coward studied. Equally important was somebody in power who was championing the cause. Tiny, dedicated groups of committed people at all levels also had to be in place, and prepared to work very hard for many, many years.
Even with all that in place, change only happened when the mainstream felt directly affected. People had to see that change would serve their own interests. (The mass unemployment of the Depression, for instance, did wonders in convincing the broader population that unemployment insurance was a good idea.)
In addition, those at the heart of the movement had to be relentless in their commitment, not to mention articulate and compelling. View the modern-day disaster of homelessness through Piven’s lens, and it’s obvious why change continues to elude us.
First, consider the homeless themselves.
People on the streets tend to be quite sick - physically and mentally. Few are in any position to protest, let alone wait out the series of court injunctions should they dare try.
They come from a street culture that might as well be Mars in terms of how much it resembles our mainstream culture. They can’t often present themselves in appealing enough fashion to elicit any public sympathy, and many inadvertently inspire fear.
Then there are the challenges of economic disruption as a motivator, particularly in this region.
Downtown Victoria and city taxpayers certainly feel the pain. The city has spent $1.4 million to date in 2007 cleaning up the detritus of 1,200 people living on or near the streets. Police have identified 324 particularly intense people in the downtown who have collectively racked up more than 23,000 encounters with the law in just over three years, at a total cost of $9.2 million. The needle exchange, currently under threat of eviction due to the social ills unfolding on its door step, has seen its caseload triple to 1,600 in the last decade.
But if you don’t live, work or shop in the downtown, it’s almost like there’s no problem. In a region with 13 municipalities and numerous shopping districts, you can choose not to look - at least until the problems grow large enough to spill into your own neighbourhood.
So how will we battle this beast at the heart of our community? I guess it’s up to the small band of believers that Piven identified as playing a key role in leading change. If you’ve made it this far into my column, it could be you’re one of them.
Maybe you’re sick of washing urine and dirty needles from your storefront. Maybe you want homes, health care and support for everyone out there. Maybe you live in the middle of it all and just want a decent night’s sleep and a feeling of safety. No matter. Everyone who wants meaningful solutions to the real issues on our streets is ultimately on the same side.
The Mayor’s Task Force on breaking the cycle of mental illness, addiction and homelessness reports today. And as you’ll see, there are solutions.
The task force has spent the last five months crafting a strategy that draws on best practises from around the world. Speaking as someone who was part of the process, it’s a good report. There’s much to learn from the experiences of cities that are hard at work trying to tackle their own crisis of homelessness.
But without action, the report is just words on paper. There’s no big bag of money out there waiting to be spent, and no immediately obvious champion for the cause who will take it from here. In other words, don’t count on change unless you’re prepared to be part of it.
Homelessness is growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year. Close to 2,000 people will be living on our streets by the end of next year. Another 600 will join them the following year, and almost 800 more in 2010.
Want to do something about that? Then gird your loins and let’s get at it. Nobody but us is going to make it happen.

1 comment:

Ian Lidster said...

I also believe the homeless themselves must invariably be part of the mix when solutions are being sought. They know firsthand, while the rest of us for the most part are day-trippers with goodwill in our hearts, but no idea about the realities. Just my thought this morning.