Friday, April 24, 2009

U.S. road trip an eyeopener into true impact of recession

I’m newly back this week from a road trip through California, and had been curious before we left whether we’d see evidence of the economic downturn during our travels.
In fact, the signs of trouble were hard to miss. We were travelling routes that primarily took us through small towns, and it took but a glance at the lineup of grim legal notices in virtually every community’s local newspaper to grasp the impact the recession is having in the U.S.
The April 8 edition of the Pahrump Valley Times, for instance, featured close to five pages of legal notices, almost all of them involving trustee sales of houses in foreclosure. The legal language of the ads made things sound very dry and orderly, but it didn’t take much to imagine the distress of the overwhelmed, indebted homeowner at the heart of every one of them.
One California auction company handling foreclosures lists almost 1,400 homes for sale - and that’s just one company, in one state. Nationally, more than 800,000 households in the U.S. went into foreclosure in the first quarter of 2009. (, which is monitoring the issue, notes on its Web site that the real number will likely surpass a million by the time all the “latent foreclosure activity” is sorted out.)
Last month alone, some 341,000 U.S. households went into foreclosure - a 12 per cent jump over any month on record. In parts of Caifornia, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Idaho, as many as one in every 55 houses are now in foreclosure. A new industry has sprung up just to deal with empty houses, which are attracting looters and squatters - in some cases, the rousted families who have nowhere else to go.
Some of the routes we drove have been in trouble for a while, of course. The stretch of highway between Las Vegas and Hawthorne, Nev., was dotted with struggling towns on the brink of collapse 10 years ago when we travelled through there.
But some of those communities are now full-out ghost towns. At least one abandoned roadside motel - and more likely two or three - was for sale in every little community we passed through. Restaurants, country stores, car dealerships, mall spaces - even brothels - sat empty and boarded up.
We found permanent residents in every RV park we pulled into, and not the typical older couple enjoying a travel-filled retirement. In Oregon, we came across a two-car family living out of their fifth-wheel trailer at an RV park steps away from Interstate 5. They’d been living there for more than a year.
Housing is housing, mind you, and a fifth-wheel is better than nothing. But these are people living in RV parks not because they choose to, but because they have to. Meanwhile, the U.S. newspapers detail the stories of those other folks - the homeless, whose numbers are dramatically on the rise as well.
In Clark County, Nev. - the region that encompasses Las Vegas - almost 13,500 people are now living homeless. That’s nearly a 20 per cent increase from the last count two years ago. Two-thirds of those surveyed reported they’re homeless because they lost their job. Almost a fifth of the homeless are military veterans, primarily from the Vietnam, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan wars.
Child poverty is on the rise, too, and President Barack Obama’s promise to get that problem fixed by 2015 isn’t doing much to help the hungry kids and cash-strapped schools grappling with a worrying increase in families who qualify for subsidized meal programs.
In Portland, Ore., the schools in poor neighbourhoods continue to see the most demand, with more than 90 per cent of families in some parts of the city now dependent on subsidized meals for their children. But nine middle-class neighbourhoods are also reporting a rise in qualifying families.
On the bright side, property prices are truly astounding right now in the states we passed through. If you’ve ever fantasized about having a modest rancher somewhere in the interior of California or Nevada on an acre or two of land, these are dream days. Don’t bet the farm on our own real-estate market recovering any time soon when prices are this low in the U.S.
What’s it all going to mean for Canada? That’s the big question, with enough differences between our two countries that it’s hard to make any predictions with much certainty. But when your most important neighbour and trading partner is in this much trouble, I’d brace for a rough ride.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

I wrote a while ago about a media report that really got it wrong about rates of HIV infection among Vancouver sex workers. I alerted University of Victoria professor Cecilia Benoit to the error, as she has done considerable competent research work around sex workers, and she in turn wrote a great piece for Harm Reduction magazine (where the original piece appeared) that sets things straight.

Follow this link to find her response, which serves as a fine reminder that we can't be too careful when reading any research document, not to mention the media's interpretation of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I'm just back from a terrific road trip to Yosemite and Death Valley in California - if you're interested in such things, I'll be posting photos in a day or two to my Facebook page (link is on the left), so feel free to check 'em out.

However, I couldn't wait to share this crazy photo of a huge flock of snow geese - 4000-5000 as best I could estimate - we stumbled across near Mount Vernon, Wash. this week as we made our way home. Apparently they show up in the farm fields around Mt. Vernon/LaConner every year on their way to summer nesting grounds in the Arctic.

As usual, travelling in the U.S. reminded me that while I don't always like American policy, I sure do like Americans. But the country is clearly feeling the pains of the economic recession in a much more obvious way than I'd expected. One glance through any town's community newspaper was enough to make that clear - most poignantly, in the jam-packed legal notices in the classified section detailing trustee sales of houses that had gone into foreclosure. Frightening, really - they've even got companies starting up now to check for squatters in empty homes, because there are getting to be so many of them. I'll be detailing that more in my column next Friday for the Times Colonist, so stay tuned.

But there's an upside to everything, and I have to admit that the downturn made for pretty economical travel in the U.S. Gas is much cheaper there than it is up here - we generally paid $2.20-$2.40 a gallon, which works out very favourable even when you factor in smaller gallons and an exchange rate of about $1.25 right now on Canadian dollars. Camping sites were rarely more than $25 anywhere. And man, if you've ever thought about picking up a nice modular home on an acre or two of land in a rural community just about anywhere in interior California, the prices are crazy-low.

As for the travel itself, there's nothing like a road trip. I know, I know - I suppose they're politically incorrect these days, what with carbon emissions and all that. But I sometimes wonder if things wouldn't turn out in favour of road trips if you ran the thing all the way through - that we didn't take a plane anywhere, that we cooked our own meals that in many cases used local ingredients, that our energy use plummeted because we've got a solar panel on the roof of our motorhome, and so on. At any rate, I think it's the best form of travel going for sheer enjoyment of the landscape, the people and the moment.

Yosemite is unbelievably beautiful, and April turned out to be a good time to go in terms of minimal tourists (although an amazing number of brave tenters toughing it out through below-freezing temperatures at night). Spring is waterfall season, so the fact that you can't access a significant portion of the park this early in the year is made up for by being able to see massive falls tumbling down all over the place along the valley's vast granite walls. Daytime temperatures were a comfortable and sunny 15 or so while we were there - great for all the hiking you want to be doing while there.

Death Valley actually wraps up its season at the end of the month, as the weather gets too hot from this point on to be able to enjoy all its fabulous hikes and wild scenic vistas. This is our second trip to Death Valley and it's definitely on my greatest-hits list, and never mind the 12-hour sand storm we gritted our teeth through (literally) one night at Stovepipe Wells. Definitely wouldn't have wanted to be a tenter on THAT night.

But a road trip is about all the other places you visit along the way, and we spent some quality time in places like Mojave, Likely, Groveland, and Folsom Lake. Even our overnight at LaConner to get ready for an early-morning ferry ride home via Anacortes was really pleasant, even though the famed tulip fields still aren't in bloom yet due to the cold spring.

On the subject of ferry travel: We saved a considerable amount of money both ways by going on American ferries instead of BC ferries. Taking a 28-foot motorhome on a BC ferry sets you back $150 each way. Meanwhile, we paid $100 Cdn to go via Port Angeles on the way down, and benefited from an "RV sale" on the Anacortes ferry on the way back that kept the fee below $100 again. What's up with that??

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Downtown community finds its stride in running club

It's a grey but dry afternoon, and our little group is on the run -- down to the bottom of Pandora, a sharp left past the "whale wall," onward to the Inner Harbour and beyond. In a city full of runners, we blend in nicely.

But this is no ordinary running club. Based on an innovative program that got its start in Philadelphia two years ago, Victoria's newest running group is for people living in tough circumstance and poverty in the downtown. They run for half an hour twice a week, starting out in borrowed running shoes and working their way toward brand-new ones once they've stuck it out for 15 runs.

"This is my 10th time out, and I'm loving it," says Desi, a middle-aged participant who's new to running. "I hadn't run before other than for the bus, but it's been really good."

The concept for Every Step Counts is deliberately simple: A brief warm-up and a little conversation at the Cool Aid Society's Downtown Activity Centre; a 30-minute run; a quick stretch and some food back at the activity centre to wrap things up. The challenges people have in their lives are left behind for the duration.

"It's an exceptional program. I wish it had occurred to somebody in the medical and mental-health community long before this," enthused one participant with chronic mental illness. "It's very simple, it's very direct -- no psychobabble. I'm a 46-year smoker and am now determined to quit because I want to be able to keep this up."

The impetus for Every Step Counts came from Victoria Foundation executive director Sandy Richardson, who'd heard about Philadelphia marathoner Anne Mahlum and the success she'd had starting a homeless running group in that city.

Mahlum got the idea after running regularly past a homeless shelter during her marathon training. What started out as a few friendly words exchanged with the shelter residents she'd pass every morning eventually grew into the program Back on My Feet, which now operates out of five shelters in the Philadelphia area.

Richardson turned to local Frontrunners business owner and running enthusiast Rob Reid to help get something similar going in Victoria. The foundation, Frontrunners and a variety of other sponsors chipped in for funding and gear, and a part-time co-ordinator was hired in early February and Every Step Counts was launched.

It's very much a collective effort. Reid uses his extensive running contacts to pull together "gently used" running shoes and clothing for participants. Co-ordinator Gillie Easdon makes the food for the post-run snacks. On the day I joined the group for its run, two staff from Cool Aid were taking part, making sure that the slower runners always had company as we made our way through the downtown.

Easdon has her own interesting story for how she came to the job. She's a downtown resident who up until a year ago was more likely to find herself griping about the impact of street issues on her life rather than rolling up her sleeves to do something about them. "I held some ill-informed but common opinions," she says.

That changed when she decided to "get informed" by volunteering at a one-day event for the street community put on last October by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness. Project Connect gave Easdon a new perspective on the issues around homelessness, and a desire to do more to help.

A runner herself, she loves seeing participants find their stride through the new running program. The group is now training for the Times Colonist 10K on April 26, with a few participants even pondering the Royal Victoria Marathon in the fall. Those interested in donating money, food or good-quality running gear to the program, contact Easdon at

The participant who'd earlier told me he was grateful for a lack of "psychobabble" says the program has brought him back to running after more than seven years of sedentary, unhappy living due to his struggles with worsening mental-health problems.

"When you're on medication for all of that, you don't get out much, and you start feeling worse and worse because you're not getting out," he says. "It's a negative cycle.

"But these runs are a simple achievement. We've got simple goals from one week to the next. It's all about just putting one foot in front of the other."

- - -

Speaking of sports gear for good causes, the Cool Aid floor hockey team could really use some proper goalie equipment. If you can donate, call Mike at 250-380-8768.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Not enough just to measure 'school satisfaction'

Our public schools are in the news right now, for issues ranging from funding problems to whether principals are "dumbing down" the education process by letting students rewrite tests.

But I've yet to see much discussion about findings that flag much deeper problems in B.C.'s public schools, as identified by the students and parents using the system.

Satisfaction surveys have their limitations, but they still reveal a great deal about how the "customer" perceives a service. Done regularly, they're also valuable for tracking whether customer satisfaction improves as problems are identified and dealt with.

Take a look at the 2007-08 surveys of B.C. public schools, however, and what you'll find are a whole lot of dissatisfied students and parents who have been identifying the same problems in our schools for more than five years now, with virtually no sign of improvement in the areas they identify as sub-par.

Kudos to the B.C. Liberals for initiating the satisfaction surveys in 2003. It's important to be taking the measure of all our systems to ensure they're effective and efficient. I appreciate government that opens itself up to public scrutiny in the interest of doing a better job.

But if we're bothering to ask students and parents whether they're happy with our schools, you'd presume we'd also want to act on what they tell us. Five years of poor scores in several major categories looks to me like we're not doing that.

The satisfaction surveys are given annually to parents, school staff, and certain grades of students. The 18 questions gauge people's perceptions of how well their school is doing in terms of student achievement, human and social development, school environment, safety, computer skills and physical activity.

There are bright spots in the 2007-08 survey. Most students feel safe at school. Most report that their teachers help them with their problems. More than 80 per cent think their school is inclusive and welcoming to people who are "different." At least three-quarters of parents are satisfied with what their child is learning in school, up four percentage points since the surveys first started.

Still, there's significant room for improvement on all fronts, and work to do to understand why satisfaction rates drop so precipitously as students enter secondary school.

Students are surveyed in Grade 3-4 and again in grades 7, 10 and 12. The across-the-board drop in satisfaction as they progress through the grades is striking. Asked whether they're getting better in math, for instance, 81 per cent of Grade 3-4s in the most recent survey agreed. The figure falls to 72 per cent among Grade 7s and 59 per cent for Grade 10s. By Grade 12, only half of the students are seeing improvement.

The downward trend is similar for all categories, and particularly dramatic in the area of school environment. Students who replied affirmatively to the question of whether their teacher cared about them, for instance, goes from a high of 92 per cent among Grade 3-4 students to just 54 per cent by Grade 12. Even parents seem to be aware of a shift in teachers' attitudes toward their children as they make their way through the grades, with 89 per cent of elementary-school parents reporting that teachers care for their child compared to just 71 per cent of secondary school parents.

Much like their children, parents become significantly less satisfied with the system as students get into higher grades. Some of the lowest satisfaction rates for parents are around secondary schools' efforts to prepare their child for a job or college/university.

Fewer than half of secondary-school parents think their child's school is doing a good job of preparing the student for work. Just 57 per cent think their child is being well-prepared for post-secondary. (Those are 2007-08 figures, but the numbers have barely budged since surveys started in 2003.) Students have an even poorer perception of how ready they are, with just 40 per cent of Grade 12 students agreeing that their school has prepared them adequately for the workforce.

The surveys also identify a major gap between school staff's perceptions of how well they're doing compared with parent and student perceptions.

In general, staff members feel strongly that their schools are doing a good job on all fronts (with the possible exception of teaching computer skills, which everyone seems to agree isn't going well).

That's a problem. How can staff tackle the serious concerns identified by parents and students if, in their mind, everything's just fine?

It's clearly not.

To read the full report, click here: