Saturday, January 2, 2010

Homelessness and Magical Thinking

The British Columbia Court of Appeal has effectively called Victoria city council to task for magical thinking regarding homelessness. No-one who lives in Victoria or its surrounding municipalities can rationally believe that there is not a serious homelessness problem in Victoria. There are however different perspectives as to who suffers from this homelessness problem.

At one side of the spectrum there are those who expressly or implicitly think of homelessness as a self-inflicted injury on the part of the homeless -- that is, the problem would be solved if only the homeless would stop taking substances or get a job or take their meds or just 'straighten-up' and have some self-respect. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who see society as having inflicted the injury of homelessness on itself by failing to provide protection for children or adequate health care for the mentally ill or basic welfare for the poor or affordable housing for those who are low in income. As is generally the case with spectrums, most of us take views which are a blend of these thoughts.

To my mind however, the injury of homelessness is done to all of us. The suffering of those people who are without homes is obvious. Even in Victoria the elements are not kind at night. In the winter it is cold, wet and dark and in the summer it is just cold and dark. It is also a dangerous environment, as night always brings out the drunk or the risk-taking who will do things that are near unthinkable in the light of day when, if nothing else, the regulatory pressure of being observed serves to regulate some of our baser behaviour. I suspect that there are few homeless people who have not encountered situations where they have been assaulted or threatened while outside without shelter or protection in the night. While it is easy to fault those who are left without homes for drinking or taking drugs or allowing themselves to retreat in to psychosis, I wonder who would not want to do this when faced with the rigors of the outdoors. If the trials of tough day at the office require a glass or two or wine or a few beer at the end the day, how can the stress of the street not require something stronger.

Society as a whole suffers too from homelessness. In one sense it suffers the same way as the homeless themselves, for they too are full members of society who are entitled to all of the rights and protections guaranteed to all citizens. Their homelessness is our homelessness, as they are rendered unable to care for themselves or make the contributions to their families or society that they may want or we may expect. But even those who view all of that as mushy left-wing thinking would agree that the society at large suffers from the scourge of homelessness. Streets are rendered either unsafe or threatening. Neighborhoods see upswings in crime and the disruption that comes from desperate people with no basic provisions, no hope, no where to go and no investment in society having to 'hang about'. The physical environment suffers as people have to live their lives without the basic sanitation that our homes provide to us for the disposal of waste and the maintenance of personal cleanliness and hygiene.

On the ground in Victoria what has been seen and continues to be seen is a deterioration in our pubic spaces. Victoria is not a large enough city where there can be a "no go" zone that is distant from most of the neighborhoods in the city (such as is the case in Vancouver). Instead homelessness is pervasive throughout the downtown and into many public areas that are not all that downtown in character. There is no "going around" the homelessness problem (if one is unwilling to look upon the poor or the destitute); there is only fleeing it by living one's life outside of the city altogether. This undermines our sense of social cohesiveness; undermines the quality of life in the city and threatens the social fabric of Victoria as people become reluctant to live and work in the City. It is here that magical thinking begins to infect the thinking of Victoria's city council.

Magical thinking is the phenomena of confusing or divorcing causes from effects. Thus in a world of magical thinking blowing a whistle will cause a steam train to appear as we all know that whistles precede the arrival of a train by mere minutes. If the train does not come then we must have been blowing the whistle the wrong way -- perhaps a bit louder or a bit higher or perhaps we just need a couple of whistles. So to does Victoria city council think that homelessness -- or at least its adverse effects on public space -- can be solved by merely passing a by-law banning the erection of shelter in parks or on public spaces. Surely with such a law being passed the homeless will fade into the background and perhaps even find jobs, get themselves cleaned up or whatever is necessary so that the good taxpaying (rather than sponging) citizens of Victoria can walk on Harris Green in comfort. This is so much cheaper and easier than shelters, public health nurses and needle exchanges -- everyone in favour please raise your hands.

And yet, they still camp? How can this be? Perhaps we just need to beef up our by-law with a bit more paper and ask a judge to give us an injunction which will magically make the homeless go away. Or at least make them stop cluttering up our public spaces. A bit more paper and the problem will be solved.

In the end the British Columbia Supreme Court and the British Columbia Court of Appeal declined to engage in that sort of magical thinking. These courts accepted a simple argument -- banning people with no homes who live outdoors from erecting shelter over their heads in all public spaces directly threatens their personal security unless some alternative is offered to them. To offer a few hundred shelter beds to shelter a homeless population in the thousands does not cut it. The by-law has been struck down and council -- and all of us -- have been sent back to rethink the approach to the problem.

Now we have to figure out what to do -- and here comes the tricky part. It is clearly the hope of those who fought this case that Victoria will respond by building more shelters and allowing for more beds. Whether this will work or will merely result in the "if you build it, they will come" phenomena we see with highways is an interesting question. Ideally this would be joined with more extensive and meaningful interventions to help those who want to leave the streets do so. There is another route open to the city now -- to regulate outdoor camping rather than banning it outright. I fear that what we will soon see is a few parks or public spaces abandoned to the homeless as semi-permanent shanty towns -- a phenomena that has been growing in the United States. Perhaps the city will throw in a few porta-potties and some sinks and then ban camping everywhere else. This is a cheap, dirty and ugly response to the problem that fits well with the out of sight, out of mind approach we have seen with many governments in Canada.

Of course one of the real problems in coming up with a response to the problem of homelessness is that it has been largely left to the cities and charity. The provincial government and federal government have largely washed their hands of the issue both in terms of funding and, as importantly, thinking. Yet the reality is that these are national problems. People do not become homeless and remain in their parents backyard. They migrate to the city from suburbs, small towns and reserves. The problem is thus a national problem that is transported to the cities but the homeless are not always (or probably even predominantly) the children of the cities. They are the children of the nation. As such they should be helped by our national and provincial governments so that the burden of homelessness can be borne by all of us and not just exported to cities. It is only with this approach that we are going to ever develop effective solutions to the problem of homelessness that are not just stopgaps (shelter beds) or magical thinking.

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David P. Janes said...

Though I have some sympathy toward your argument - I've suspected that homeless social programs outside of Toronto involve bus tickets - it's not a particularly compelling argument to me why this should be pushed beyond the provincial level of government, as:

* either the municipal service deliverer will be largely divorced for from the federal service payer, a recipe for massive waste & boondoggling, or
* the federal payer will be in charge of the delivering a local product using a one size fits all model.

It's very dicey using phrases like "magical thinking" when dealing with complex systems. In the end, there's stuff that works or doesn't work with in this particular case, competing ideologies for defining the meaning of the word "work".

Given that we're not talking about 40% of your municipal budget, I suspect the proper place to take this up is with Gordon or his successor.

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Robert Janes said...

The reason for calling this "magical thinking" is that it does not work in the context of the those who propose it as a solution. That is, the goal is to keep the public spaces free and clear of homeless people but these laws are essentially unenforceable except in random cases. Thus the real effect of these laws is to create points of legal friction with not much in the way of results to show for them. Looked at prom the perspective of the proponents things are actually worse off now -- they still have the homeless in public spaces plus now they have a court case saying it is illegal to ban the homeless from erecting temporary shelters in public spaces.

Now there is also likely a bit of magical thinking going on on the other side, since I doubt this decision is going to result in an influx of cash into the the system. Instead I suspect it is going to end up in either (1) the SCC overturning the decision or (2) the creation of permanent tent cities as a "solution" to the homelessness problem.

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