Monday, September 15, 2008

Put Langford 'vision' to work on homelessness
Sept. 12, 2008

Mayor Stew Young and his council have much to be proud of in the transformation of Langford over the years. They’ve helped create an attractive, well-serviced town out of a place that not so long ago was more likely to be the punch line of a bad trailer-trash joke.
Councillors, take a bow. Municipal staff, you too, because you’ve proven the worth of a fast and efficient civic bureaucracy that knows how to get things done.
But the greatest test of Langford’s visionary capability is still to come. As the City of Victoria can woefully attest, the gentrification of a community inevitably strips away its ability to hide its social problems. Once you’ve torn down the bad part of town, there’s no hiding anything anymore.
Can we anticipate that Langford will be ahead of the curve in dealing with those coming challenges, too? So far, the verdict is still very much out on that front.
On the one hand, Langford has established civic policy that has already led to the creation of 30 affordable new homes that are selling at half the market price. That’s a brilliant move.
On the other, the municipality appears to be walking into emerging street problems with the same tired strategies that have been tried to no avail in one Canadian city after another.
Those cities can attest through painful first experience that Langford’s attempts to crack down on urban “campers” and sue the family of some kid with a prolific graffiti record simply aren’t strategic actions in terms of preventing social decay.
We’ve got two decades of experience right here in B.C. as to what happens when you try to deal with social problems solely by getting tough. Short answer: You spend a lot of money to little effect, and your problems multiply exponentially in the meantime.
Leave the whole mess long enough, as has happened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and you end up with a tragic wasteland where a lively downtown used to be. The situation isn’t quite so grim in downtown Victoria, but it’s still a pretty telling example of what can happen when a city gets things wrong around homelessness.
I would have thought a guy as clever as Stew Young would know that you can’t police social problems out of existence. Cities have been testing that strategy for well over two decades now. You only have to look at the significant rise in homelessness during that same period - at least tenfold in our region alone - for proof that the strategy doesn’t work.
The gentrification of a community is obviously a noble undertaking. Seedy crack shacks and a string of dilapidated rental properties aren’t anybody’s idea of pretty.
But with gentrification comes the razing of the last remnants of housing that poor people can still afford. Rough-looking streets of neglected duplexes and sagging houses give way to high-end condos and snazzy townhouses, with nary an impoverished renter in sight.
You can see where that practice inevitably leads, especially when nobody’s making any effort to replace the cheap and easy housing that’s being lost. Add in the damage done to the social-safety net by years of cuts and offloading at the provincial and federal level, and you’ve got the recipe for social mayhem.
What’s a municipality to do? First and foremost, see it coming and plan for it.
Countless U.S. cities have walked themselves into major street problems in decades past. Their well-documented failures stand as stark warning to modern-day communities hoping to avoid the same mistakes. OK, Langford is no New York City, but the determinants of homelessness are the same all over the world, and here’s simply no excuse for a community to stumble blindly into urban decay anymore.
I would have expected Langford to be watching and learning from Victoria as the mistakes piled up into an outright homeless crisis in the capital’s downtown. Stew Young needn’t look far afield for a reminder of what can happen when a city tries to deal with homelessness as an offence rather than a troubling social phenomenon.
Were I the undisputed king of Langford, I’d be working on having at least 10 permanently subsidized and supported units of housing built into every new development. I’d be trying to engage the town youth in something more fun than spray-painting other people’s property. I’d be out there with the same kind of innovation that Langford has shown on so many other fronts, building homes for the homeless without a minute wasted on chasing them from place to place.
Come on, Stew. You’re the man with the plan. Show us you know how to build a great community as well as a town.

2 comments:

robertrandall said...

Those subsidized units are great, but they do little to serve the most troubled and problematic of street people, the ones who cause much of the social disorder. I suspect Langford would prefer those in need of urgent shelter continue to migrate to the Downtown core.

megan said...

There must be a blind-spot. Or a vortex of some sort. This work has been done. Over and over again.

Yet we still seem to think that we can police social ills away. This has never worked and will continue to never work.

One thread in a web of support for those who need it most. If we judge our communities by how it treats it's most powerless, then these threads need to be picked up, strand by strand.

Mental health issues, addiction, poverty, abuse, neglect, homelessness, abandonment and exploitation are all pieces of the puzzle.

Pick them up, thread by thread. But don't throw away a kernel of this solution because the others aren't there yet. That would be foolish