Friday, November 26, 2010

Outright homelessness just most obvious face of Canadian poverty, study finds

The latest eye-opener on the state of social health in our country confirmed what anyone working in poverty services has known for a long time - that there’s a frighteningly large number of people barely hanging on in our communities.
What the broader community notices is the absolute homelessness - the people huddled in the doorways and camping on the boulevards. But as the authors of the just-released Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency have discovered, that’s just the visible edge of a much bigger problem.
For every person occupying an emergency shelter bed, multiply by 23 to calculate how many people in that community are actually falling in and out of their housing at least a couple of times a year, says the report from the Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness, Housing and Health.
Do the math in our region and that’s more than 10,000 people.  Forget the distinction between “homeless” and “vulnerably housed,” advises the alliance: “This is one large, severely disadvantaged group that transitions between the two housing states.”
Some 400,000 Canadians are living like that, says the alliance, a partnership of 14 hospitals, universities and community services across the country. That includes more than 54,000 in B.C., giving our province and Quebec the dubious distinction of having the highest percentages in Canada of households at risk (3.6 per cent).
These people are dead-poor, hungry and sick, with high rates of chronic and severe health problems.  Almost two-thirds have suffered a traumatic brain injury at some point in their lives. More than half have a diagnosed mental illness.
Whatever the disease or condition, rates are at least double for this impoverished group compared to the broader population - from heart disease to hepatitis-C infections, diabetes to cancer. And while the rest of us experience violent crime at a rate of one in 100, more than one in three of the 1,200 people interviewed for the study reported being beaten up or attacked in the previous year.
The rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are four times higher than in the general population. Asthma rates are triple. Problems with mobility - trouble walking, missing limbs - are more than twice as common.
This is what two decades of social cuts and poorly considered policy changes look like, Canada. How much more will it take to get us to act?
It’s too bad that the annual report from the Select Standing Committee on Finance was released at such an intensely political moment this month, because the findings got lost in the noise of an unexpected tax cut from a desperate premier and the subsequent resignations of affronted New Democrats on the committee.
Side shows aside, I thought the committee really recognized this year that cuts to community services had gone too far in B.C. That’s especially significant given that it was an all-Liberal version of the committee that issued the final report after the NDP walkout.
Hardly a surprise, mind you.  Dozens of presentations to the committee this fall came from people whose work puts them in the midst of B.C.’s growing sub-class. Say what you will about trickle-down economics and “hand up” strategies, it ought to be obvious at this point to anyone with their eyes open that poor people are starting to pile up in our province.
What to do? Get real, for one thing. People on income assistance can’t possibly stay housed on current rates - a single room in a shared home goes for at least $500 in Greater Victoria right now, impossible on a shelter rate of $375 and a total cheque of $610.
Raise the rates and allow people to keep some earnings from part-time work. If someone’s just too sick or disabled to ever achieve financial independence, put them on a guaranteed income tied to the cost of living and help them find volunteer work.
Give employment-insurance benefits to people who are unemployed, which is not the way the system works at the moment.  Raise the minimum wage and tie it to cost-of-living increases.
Mental-health care needs to shake off its stigmatized poor-sister status and become a genuine part of the health-care system, not a rag-tag bit of bother that’s always the first to lose funding and the last to get it. Brain injuries need to be treated as the lifelong sea change that they are, with services and supports lasting well beyond the hospital door.
Not rocket science, as they say. Yet here we are, 400,000 people deep and still dithering.  

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