Monday, December 29, 2008

We've shopped 'til we dropped - then shopped some more

I’m not certain when it was that shopping became a question of patriotic duty, but I’m guessing it was when U.S. President George Bush made it an imperative in the days after 9/11.
“Get on board,” he urged a devastated American public struggling to come to grips with the bombing of the World Trade Centre.
“Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Fast-forward seven years and the bombs are more metaphorical, this time tearing apart the world’s financial markets instead of New York City’s twin towers. But shopping is still the “cure,” apparently, as evidenced by our own federal government’s recent fit of pique with the country’s big banks over whether they’re doing enough to provide Canadians with easy credit.
I get the theory of it - that everything depends on everything at times like these, and that economic stability hinges on us all just sticking to what we’ve always done and continuing to spend. But is that really a solution anymore now that we know where such habits get us?
I lost track of the endless times this Christmas season that the media featured stories speculating on whether all of us would/wouldn’t be shopping in our usual excessive way this season.
The shopping theme is always popular this time of year. But the level of coverage was truly extraordinary this season, given the natural tie-in with the global recession. Radio and on-line polls jumped in with the tough questions: Are you shopping yet? How much do you think you’ll spend? Is that more or less than usual?
I doubt the media intended their scrutiny to effectively come across as an exhortation to shop. But that’s what it ended up feeling like to me. Was I going to be letting down the national economy if I didn’t get out there and do more spending?
I’ve got nothing against shopping. I did my share this Christmas, albeit not always happily. (I like the idea of exchanging gifts with people you love, but find the current tradition has morphed into some kind of nutso mutant that burns through a ton of money and stresses everybody out.)
But shouldn’t we be reconsidering everything to do with the way we manage money right now in light of what’s going on with the world economy? Not to oversimplify a complex situation, but the lesson I’ll be taking away from this period in history is about what happens on a global level when we all get used to spending money we don’t have.
Bring the big concepts down to the individual level, and it’s not far off of a typical North American Christmas shopping experience.
I understand the potential for economic disaster were we to ever stop shopping. Our spending habits drive business and industry in Canada and around the globe, and employ legions of people whose jobs depend on our willingness to continue to shop, shop, shop.
In Canada, we keep almost as many people working through a single month of crazy Christmas spending as the country’s manufacturing industry provides in an entire year. We spend close to $30 billion annually just in December.
But do we want to? Can we afford to? Those are important questions to ask.
Every January I talk a good game about spending less on the next Christmas, but inevitably find myself jammed into the stores 11 months later spending more than I wanted to. Judging by the number of grim-faced shoppers on auto-pilot I passed by in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I’m not alone with this problem.
Those who long for a return to the true meaning of Christmas lament the shopping frenzy that surrounds the season. A pleasant tradition of sharing small gifts has grown into six weeks of frantic buying, little of which has anything to do with Jesus.
My complaints are more secular. I just think we’re losing touch with the fact that the bill always comes due, whether we’re talking about our Christmas spending or the global financial crisis.
Lenders, investors, traders, venture capitalists, regulators - they all have had a hand in the crisis that’s rocking world markets. But at the root of the sub-prime collapse that triggered much of the economic mayhem are individual consumers who were in over their heads. They shopped when they should have been saving.
A tip for surviving economic downturns: Learn to live within your means, whatever the season. The only thing mindless spending gets you is more of the same.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It's good news week

Even a doomsayer like me has to let up once in a while, and the Christmas season generally feels like the time to do it. Maybe it’s all those songs about peace and goodwill.
At any rate, I’ve dug up some nuggets of good news to share with you this festive season.
I admit, my initial instinct was to add a “but” to every one of them, because it seems that every upside has a downside in these problematic times. But for the sake of a holly, jolly column, I’m going to try to keep my gloomy inner voice in check for a change and tell you about what’s working.

The B.C. government is awakening to the problems of homelessness. Four of the six news releases on the Ministry of Housing and Social Development Web site this week detail actions being taken to house or shelter people living on B.C. streets.
Better still, work is underway on 19 old hotels in the Vancouver area to turn them into better housing for the impoverished people who already live there, plus add new units for some of the thousands still living on Vancouver’s streets. Sure, it’s probably because of the Olympics, but who cares?

Four “StrongStart” preschool programs launched this week in B.C. The new programs, available to any B.C. school district that wants to give them a try, are designed to help children get off to a better start when they begin kindergarten.
All the studies point to the importance of those early years in determining a child’s future well-being, so it’s great to hear that we’re paying more attention to that vital period of development. Parents and children attend the free drop-ins together.

We’re trying to be more effective at preventing youth crime. We’ve been talking about this issue like we meant it for a very long time. But what’s different about the latest initiative in B.C. is that it’s evidence-based.
In other words, researchers have actually evaluated the new strategies that will be piloted in six communities and deemed that they really do work when it comes to keeping kids away from a life of crime. The first pilot targets Vancouver children ages 10 to 15 who tend to take their first steps into crime after long hours hanging out with other youth at the city’s SkyTrain stations.
Too often, we tend to take people’s word for it when they seek public funding for “prevention” programs. We don’t ask whether the methods are actually effective, or require those running the programs to produce meaningful evidence that show their approach is working. If we really want to prevent B.C. children from getting involved in crime, that has to change.

Fewer Canadian children are going to jail. Credit the five-year-old Youth Criminal Justice Act for that positive change. Studies have repeatedly shown that jailing young people sets them up for criminal involvement as adults, but it wasn’t until revamped young-offender laws were enacted in 2003 that Canada’s courts started changing their sentencing patterns.
The number of youth doing jail sentences has dropped by 36 per cent since the act was passed into law. The past year alone saw a five per cent drop.

Almost half of Canadians are leading a “very” environmentally active lifestyle. Some 45 per cent of us routinely adhere to at least four of six indicators around good environmental practise, and another 45 per cent manage two or three. We’re turning down our thermostats, using low-flow toilets and showerheads, switching to fluorescent bulbs, composting and recycling.
Unfortunately, we’ve got ways to go. Canada’s household greenhouse gas emissions are up 13 per cent since 1990, with motor-fuel use alone contributing to almost a third of that increase. Oops.

Speaking of gas, it’s cheaper. These are happy days for drivers, if not for the environment. Gas prices in October were almost 12 per cent lower than they were in September, and they’ve fallen even more since then. Granted, energy costs are still 14 per cent higher than they were a year ago, but hey, enjoy the “savings” while you can.
Overall, it’s costing you 10.5 per cent more to run your car now than a year ago. But at least the cost of buying a new one is down nine per cent.
B.C. leads the nation in the growth of small business. Economic diversity is what minimizes the ravages of a downturn, so let’s be grateful for the more than 385,000 small businesses that together account for a third of B.C.’s gross domestic product. Show them that you care by doing business with them.

Merry Christmas, folks. May all your news be good.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sheer madness and massive waste of money to release BC prisoners to homelessness

What I’d planned for today’s column was a look at what happens when somebody without housing is released from a provincial jail in B.C.
I’d run into an interesting fellow named Reg in my downtown travels, who’d wanted to talk about the practise of releasing prisoners straight onto the streets after they’ve served their time at the jail on Wilkinson Road. He told me it had happened to him more times than he could count.
But sometimes a column ends up becoming the story of what happened on the way to the story, and this is one of those.
First, a few statistics to give you a sense of the issue at hand. B.C. has nine jails, which at any given point in time are housing close to 2,800 prisoners serving sentences of less than two years. The average stay is 55 days, so that means as many as 18,500 people moving in and out of B.C. jails in any given year, at a cost of almost $160 million.
That’s just the cost to lock them up, of course. On top of that are the far larger costs of crime itself - obvious things like policing and courts, but also the incalculable costs borne by the 300,000 British Columbians who are victims of crime in a typical year.
Big stuff. You’d presume somebody in the provincial government would be keeping a careful eye on all of that, wouldn’t you? You’d presume somebody would have realized that releasing prisoners to the street is a recipe for more crime, more street problems and more cost.
But you’d be wrong. It turns out the government doesn’t even keep records of how many prisoners are being released into homelessness, let alone question the practise.
Nor is anyone monitoring the number of repeat offenders cycling through B.C. jails. BC Corrections spokesman Bruce Bannerman tells me the provinces have never been able to reach agreement on a single definition of “recidivism,” so nobody tracks it anymore.
I’d initially set out to try to talk to somebody at Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre about the problem, but that turned out to be a wild fantasy. I was diverted to BC Corrections first, then made my own way to the Public Safety Ministry four days later when my calls still hadn’t been returned.
Six days after my first inquiry and half an hour past the time I’d given as my absolute deadline, I got a call from Bannerman.
Corrections worries about corrections issues, he told me. Once a prisoner’s sentence is done, it’s up to “community partners” and other government agencies to take it from there.
Considering that there is no government agency that actually finds people housing - and no housing to be found by the weary, underfunded “community partners” who are out there looking - I guess that answers my question about whether prisoners are being released straight to the streets.
Bannerman says that at least these days, everyone coming out of B.C. prisons gets $200 or so from the welfare ministry as they leave. That’s a change from a few years ago when they walked out the door with nothing. Reg says it’s hard not to want to buy drugs or alcohol with the money, especially given how many prisoners these days have addictions.
BC Corrections wants me and you to believe that we can leave it to “community partners” to take care of things on the other side of the prison wall. But it’s just not true. Agencies are doing what they can to find housing, but there’s very little housing to be found. The new Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team (VICOT) is showing some early successes in housing 50 chronic offenders with diagnosed mental illness, but there are far more people than that who need the help and VICOT already seems to be at capacity.
Reg says he can always tell during a stint at “Wilkie” when a fellow prisoner is due for release, because all they’ll be talking about is whether anyone knows a place where they can stay.
When Reg got out of jail three weeks ago, he was under a court order stipulating he stay at a recovery house as a condition of being released. Yet he still ended up released to the streets. He dreams of opening a transition house specifically for men coming out of prison and trying to stay out of trouble - men like him.
“Right now, people are getting out of Wilkie and are back there almost immediately,” he says. “How long’s it going to take once you’re out on the street before you get some crack and booze in you and kick in somebody’s door?”

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Stigma one of the worst 'symptoms' of HIV

It’s a rainy Tuesday, and the group of women who put on this year’s Viral Monologues are debriefing over bowls of moose-meat stew about their performance the previous weekend.
There were some challenging moments. One of the six performers backed out at the last minute, unable to bear the thought of putting her HIV status out there for all the world to see. That left an empty chair on stage.
But the group decided to leave the chair there anyway, as a reminder of the stigma that still lingers when it comes to HIV. The effect was powerful.
The Viral Monologues models itself after Eve Ensler’s popular Vagina Monologues. The “viral” version of the play was launched in 2002 by the Voice Collective, the AIDS Vancouver Island women’s group who is meeting on this day to dissect its sixth and most recent production.
The “monologue” premise a la Ensler is simple enough: Women sit on stage and tell personal stories from their lives - from the point of view of their vaginas in Ensler’s case, or through the lens of HIV in the case of the Viral Monologues.
Ensler’s stories are real-life, but presented by actors. What distinguishes the Viral Monologues is that the stories are told by the women who are actually living them. Today at the debrief, talk turns to how challenging that can be.
Revealing the intimate details of your life to an audience of strangers would be difficult at the best of times. But when the story is about HIV, anything can happen. One member of the Voice Collective is learning that the hard way, having been ordered out of Canada after years of living here with her Canadian husband when word got out that she was HIV-positive.
A shift on AVI’s information line is a painful reminder of the stigma that continues to cling to HIV, says AVI manager Heidi Exner.
“I’ve had people ask me whether they should bleach their dishes now that they’ve found out their friend has HIV,” she says. “It’s not the people with HIV who change. We change the people.”
Media attention is a mixed blessing, the women agree. The stories need to get out there, because they put a face on HIV. Those who still envision HIV as the quick and brutish killer it once was need to meet the new generation of people who are living into old age with the virus due to major advances in treatment.
But the risk to those who go public shouldn’t be underestimated, because there’s just no predicting what might happen once the story of you and your HIV hits the daily paper. Even when things go as well as they possibly could, there’s a potential for something to go very wrong when it comes to a disease as stigmatized as HIV.
An uninformed and fearful landlord could see your name in the paper, for instance, and start working on ways to evict you. A potential employer could see the story and choose somebody else for the job. The guy at your bank, or your kid’s teacher, might start looking at you funny. The pity in people’s eyes might drive you mad.
Once you and your disease are featured in the media, you’re “out” wherever you go. There’s no taking your privacy back.
If it’s a story about living with asthma or cancer, no problem. Nobody gets judged for having asthma or cancer, or a whole roster of other diseases. But the same can’t be said for HIV.
Even the way a person gets HIV determines whether they’ll be more or less stigmatized . There’s one kind of stigma for those who catch HIV through a blood transfusion, and quite another for those infected through injection drug use. As for sex, better to have contracted HIV through your unfaithful spouse than to have gotten it through a promiscuous lifestyle.
Exner tells a funny/tragic story of a hospital doctor relentlessly questioning her one time about the source of a friend’s HIV, as if her answer would make all the difference as to how the patient was treated. The sad thing is, it might have.
With new medications turning HIV into a chronic health condition rather than a death sentence, it’s stigma that often gives the disease its sharpest edge these days. The women around the table agree it’s tough to go public with your story in the face of such judgment, but recognize that staying silent just feeds the sense of shame.
“It’s part of our life,” says one. “We’ve grown a lot by telling our stories.”