Saturday, February 24, 2007

Housing and homeless in Vancouver, and 2010

I live in Vancouver, BC, where the gap between the very rich and the extreme poor is all to apparent. In the same day that I see droves of people drive to work in their fifty thousand dollar SUVs, I see more droves of people barely surviving in the Donwtown Eastside. One thing that really gets me as much as anything is the relentless ignorance of those who would believe that the extreme poor are in that state by choice, leave them to their own devices, and demand that they just "get a job." Well, it's not as simple as that.

Choices are very important in life, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are constrained by the social, economic, environmental, societal, and biological context within which one exists. If you have a mental illness, you have the inability to make rational choices from the start. The cards are stacked against you. Alot of the mentally ill on the streets are there because of the de-institutionalization by the Socred government in the 80s. if you come from a poor background, you have the cards stacked against you. If you have a disability, you have the cards stacked against you. If you come from an abusive background, you have the cards stacked against you. If you are an aboriginal, you have the cards stacked against you.

And, if you live in a society that doe not look after the weakest of the citizens, as we do, and you are already homeless, you virtually don’t have a chance. It is a trap that is extremely, extremely difficult to escape. How are they going to do that? They don’t have a place to sleep, a place to shower or change, let along anything to change into. All they probably have are the smelly, torn clothes on their back. Their nutritional intake is extremely poor. And that’s assuming that they’re even capable of working, as opposed to having a mental illness or some undiagnosed physical disability?

Recent events are a symptom of this continual ignorance. First is the government money spent on a countdown clock for the 2010 Winter Olympics, money that could easily have been spent instead on helping the homeless. Second is this past week's provincial government budget, proudly promoted by Carole Taylor as the housing budget. There were shelter beds for the homeless promised, but not nearly enough, and decent affordable housing rather than shelter beds would have been much better.

With the 2010 Olympics coming, the well-known prediction from the Pivot Legal Society that homelessness may triple between now and 2010, and the lack of sufficient response from all levels of government to the issue of housing and homelessness, I am very concerned about what the future is going to hold for the homeless. Are the fears that the Downtown Eastside will be gentrified and the extreme poor pushed even further into the margins of society actually likely to materialize?

At this point, my temptation is to say that this is a crossroads for our city and we have to decide which path we will take: continued self-absorbtion and ignorance, or a new enlightenment recognizing social as well as personal responsibility.

However, society doesn't change that much in three years, so I will put it this way: Our governments can go one of two ways on this problem. Either way, the end result must be that visitors to our fine city in 2010 to not perceive a homelessness problem. The tact that I'm afraid will materialize is to push the homeless even further into the margins of society; this will backfire, as crime will increase. The better long-term approach is to show visitors that we are a conscientious, inclusive society, and feed, house, and clothe our homeless citizens.