Friday, March 21, 2008

Lessons from Mexico on homelessness
March 14, 2008

Mexico has had my heart for the better part of 10 years now, so I’m no longer surprised at a feeling of coming “home” any time I holiday there.
But given my current fascination with all things homeless, my most recent holiday down south also brought to my attention the dramatic differences in the way our two countries handle poverty issues.
Mexico is on its way up economically, but it’s got a long way to go before its citizens have it as good as a typical Canadian. While the babies aren’t dying as often and people are living much longer, Mexico remains a country with considerable problems.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from Mexico around managing homelessness. When a region as privileged as ours has more visible evidence of poverty than a developing nation like Mexico, that’s a sign that something’s seriously amiss.
Life is no holiday for a lot of Mexicans, so I want to be careful not to come across as a Pollyanna type waxing on about a “poor but happy” nation that cares deeply about its people.
The gross national income is a meagre $7,310 a year in Mexico, for instance, compared to $32,600 in Canada. Infant mortality rates are much improved over the last three decades, but Mexican children are still more than four times as likely to die before their fifth birthday as are Canadian children.
Child labour is common. I’ve seen kids as young as three trailing their moms along a hot tourist beach hawking jewellery to holidayers. In fact, UNICEF estimates that 16 per cent of Mexican kids age five to 14 are in the workforce.
The water supply is unstable, and often undrinkable. The roads are beautiful wherever the tourists and rich people are, and rough and unpredictable everywhere else. Poverty is so widespread that it’s essentially the rule rather than the exception; five per cent of Mexicans live on less than $1 a day.
And yet you can still walk down the street - any street - without seeing a single person sleeping in a doorway. Panhandlers are scarce, and their ranks generally limited to the most disabled. In terms of drugs and alcohol, it’s tourists rather than locals who you’re most likely to see intoxicated on the street.
There’d be any number of reasons for all of that, so I’ll avoid romanticizing on that front as well. But to me the primary difference is that in Mexico, poor people are at least given the freedom to figure their own way out of homelessness.
In Mexico, people living in the most extreme poverty can always find some wreck of a shed somewhere to squat in. If they can scratch up enough money for a few concrete blocks and a piece of tin for the roof, there’s always someplace in town where they’re able to set it up.
If they can figure out a way to make a few pesos, they’re free to do so. Some end up selling gum and bobble-headed toy turtles to tourists. Others hawk homemade tamales on local buses, with little fear of being turned in for a FoodSafe violation.
Here in Greater Victoria, we’ve taken the opposite approach. We’ve flushed everyone onto the streets where we can see them and left them to be beggars.
With the best of intentions, we’ve rid the city of disreputable rooming houses and slum motels. We’ve cracked down on shacks under the bridge and makeshift camps in our parks. We’ve torn down tired old apartments and replaced them with million-dollar condos.
We’ve rousted people from every cubbyhole. Shut down the beach campers. Gentrified the neighbourhoods. Torn apart every cardboard shack. Nobody in Victoria would ever get away with trying to make a few bucks selling sandwiches out of their sports bag; even the squeegee guy trying to clean a few car windows for change soon finds himself arrested.
The result: Our social failings have been laid bare for all to see, and street-level enterprise extinguished. Mexico is the truly poorer nation, but it’s our sparkling little city by the sea that wears its poverty most openly.
The court case over camping in our public parks speaks to the heart of the issue. Do we have the legal right to deny people a home in our parks when we aren’t offering them any alternatives? I’ve never seen people camping in Mexican parks, but I suspect that’s because they don’t have to.
I’m counting on our community to end homelessness in coming years. But for the time being we need strategies for living with it, cardboard shacks and all.

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