Once again, a typical Conservative statement of values (with apologies to Hugh Segal): Minister James Moore says “Well, obviously nobody wants kids to go to school hungry. Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast? Empowering families with more power and resources so that they can feed their own children is, I think, a good thing. Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”*
Wrong, I say. The government is us. And it is our job to help nourish our neighbour’s kids – right here in Roncesvalles Village. It’s all very well to talk about “empowering families” so they can feed their own children. Nice and vague. That’s a fairly typical right-wing perspective. It lets them off the hook. But how do you ‘empower’ alcoholic, or gambling-addicted or mentally ill parents, in a way that guarantees their child will be fed. And that child needs far more than feeding in any case.
If not feeding the child is one end of this perspective, building bigger prisons is the other end. I think of that as punishing an already wounded child who has become a still wounded adult. Increased funding for prisons, cutbacks on funding for vulnerable youth programs, housing, etc.
Practical reality suggests strongly that as a society, we’d save a fortune if we provided supportive housing at $25-31/day, instead of mere shelters, at $69 a bed. But reality is not what conservatism is about. These days it’s about critical-judgmental perspectives, selfishness.
People do not become homeless because they made ‘bad choices’. Or because they refused to memorize their timetables. Oh they’ve probably made some mistakes along the way, but who among us has not? To dismiss the lifelong impact of their childhood experience is ignorance of the worst sort.
“Bad choices” are the only choices you have left when “wiser” options have been precluded by your actual ‘life story’. You get to make ‘good choices’ when you’ve had a childhood of relative privilege: unconditional love, education, security, a good vocabulary, an ability to communicate, to charm people. And a soul that’s relatively peaceful.
No, people end up without permanent addresses – or in extreme poverty — because of ‘stuff’ that has happened to them. Stuff that makes for nightmares, not to mention an inability to concentrate – or perhaps even a chorus of voices and noises in the head that would drive most of us to distraction.
Take my homeless ‘senior’ friend D, who spends a lot of time in Roncy. By the time he was fourteen, he’d already been precluded from the possibility of inner peace. ‘Career development’ would have seemed a joke. With his drunken father alternating between his – or his little brother’s – bed at night, he couldn’t take his living nightmare any longer and left home. So at fourteen, he had to not only continue raising himself, but also figure out on his own how to deal with all the crap that life would throw at him.
Was that a ‘bad choice’? “Should-haves” are easy to say about someone else, when we can’t imagine what their daily life is like. Surely it doesn’t take that much imagination to guess at the agonizing life he had to live at times. Not to mention his state of mind and emotions as a child.
My father might not have been the greatest dad for me, but he never crawled into any kid’s bed. He certainly never abused anyone, and he did set a conventional ‘good example’. He regularly said, “There but for the grace of god, go I.”
As a Christian, when he said, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” he meant it. He believed in compassion and charity, and lived it – more or less. He was what selfish conservatives call, generally with a snear and a voice dripping with sarcasm, a ‘liberal’. As if it meant giving away the family jewels. My friend D would have appreciated a father like that.
The point is that anyone growing up in a conventional family is not in a position to judge a homeless person. So why do I often hear the question, “Why should I pay for some else’s bad choices or mistakes?” Just ignorance. People aren’t homeless because of bad choices. They are homeless because of circumstances beyond their control.
Many are homeless because of mental illness, addictions and other ailments, and on average, homeless people die in their forties. I think it’s also fair to say that many are homeless because of official government policies which, after all, reflect us. They are homeless because, for starters, there aren’t enough homes.
(Some things you might not have realized): “Michael Shapcott* notes that in 1982, all levels of government funded 20,450 new social housing units. By 1995, the number dropped to approximately 1,000, with a modest increase to 4,393 by 2006 (Wellesley Institute, 2008)” (I recommend checking out www.homelesshub.ca.)
“Supportive housing programs can also reduce the costs associated with health care and the justice system. One study found that investing in supportive housing costs $13,000 to $18,000 per year; in comparison, traditional institutional responses like prisons and psychiatric hospitals cost $66,000 to $120,000 per year.”
We already know from experiments in a number of cities with “homes first” policies, that money is saved in shelter and emergency costs, with some shelters shutting down through lowered demand. But I believe it’s becoming obvious that general improvements and cost savings would be even more dramatic, if we went “all the way” as a society, and provided not only homes, but professional support as well as all basic needs. It just makes sense.
Of all the reasons that exist for poverty and homelessness, surely we could eliminate the most significant one: regressive policies, a byproduct of social attitudes that need changing. This will only happen if enough of us keep speaking up and pointing out what should be obvious.
http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/12/20/the_harsh_spirit_of_ebenezer_scrooge_lives_on.html http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/12/09/conservatives_dismantling_social_programs_built_over_generations.html http://www.homelesshub.ca/ResourceFiles/SOHC2103.pdf http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/issues/housing?terminitial=23&routetoken=52da198940fbf4169727679a93c91fcdhttp://www.threesource.ca/documents/April2012/HousingFirstReport.pdf
** Canadian activist and Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation, Wellesley Institute