Sunday, February 07, 2010

Poor government policy feeds social problems, municipalities pay the price

Like it or not, it’s our municipal governments who are being left to figure out real solutions to the problems and miseries on our streets.
It’s not right that things have turned out that way. But so it goes sometimes. Kudos to the City of Victoria, the Capital Regional District and the City of Vancouver for recognizing that, even though it must be infuriating to be put in that position.
I take heart from the news this week that the City of Victoria is bidding on three Traveller’s Inn hotels for social-housing use, and funding Our Place street drop-in so it can open two hours longer every day. It’s great that the CRD has stepped in with money to spare the barely-out-of-the-box Coalition to End Homelessness an untimely demise. I like that the City of Vancouver launched new shelters in warehouse space that it owns, instantly housing hundreds of people.
But while I don’t want to be a wet blanket, there’s just one little problem: While our municipalities are stepping up to make things happen, senior levels of government continue to make the same bad decisions that landed us here in the first place. Hard cuts to B.C. community services this year and next threaten to cancel out the small wins we’ve seen around homelessness.
My journalism career has almost exactly tracked the tremendous rise in homelessness in our province, giving me a unique front-row seat to the making of a social catastrophe.
It’s a complex problem, and not everything can be blamed on the actions of senior levels of government. But much of it can.
Homelessness wasn’t even a word when I first started reporting in Kamloops in 1982. When I moved to Victoria in 1989, the dozen or so alcoholics who accounted for Victoria’s street problems at that time seemed so non-threatening that the downtown community whimsically dubbed them “The Apple Tree Gang” and generally spoke fondly of the men.
Pockets of poverty have always existed throughout the province, of course, and there have always been people homeless. (A woman who grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s along Cecelia Ravine recalls seeing men living in empty concrete culverts in that area during those tough years.)
But it was a sporadic problem at best in times gone by, and virtually unheard of outside larger centres. The level of homelessness we’ve now grown used to in B.C. communities would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
Many, many federal and provincial policies and practises have changed since the early 1980s, when B.C.’s troubles began. The bad decision-making can’t be pinned on one political party, or one party leader; in my time, I’ve seen governments of all stripes participate in the creation of widespread homelessness.
I wish I could tell you I was prescient enough to foresee the terrible thing that resulted from the collective impact of dozens of small policy shifts. But like everybody else, it took me a long time to connect the dots. Homelessness as we know it in B.C. developed drip by drip, one seemingly unrelated policy decision at a time.
The economy has changed enormously over the years as well, in B.C. and around the world. The places where people on the margins once lived and worked have vanished in a blur of gentrification and upward mobility.
The resource work is gone. The welfare and employment insurance is way harder to get. The housing prices are crazy, and rentals are scarce. Even the drugs have changed, bringing a whole new set of issues with them.
Life has also gotten much meaner for anyone with personal problems - a disability, a head injury, a difficult divorce, a troubled child, an infirm or impoverished old age. The “social safety net” in Canada is beyond frayed at this point.
Once again, blame senior levels of government for getting us to this point, and the electorate for not holding them accountable for their devastating actions. At this very moment, even as our communities take on more responsibility around homelessness, the province and the health authorities are making cuts that will fuel further social problems across B.C.
Effective, long-standing services are vanishing under the knife, eliminated with nary a hint of preparation or planning for the social fallout. Only harm can come of that - for those tipping precariously toward the streets, and for anyone dreaming of happier, healthier days for our communities.
Our municipalities are trying to fill gaps as best they can. But as long as higher levels of government are undermining their every step, they won’t succeed.

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