Last night I took the night off from being homeless to have dinner with friends who live in the town I am visiting. Our conversation led me to a startling revelation. My journey is not simply about the 140,000 people living homeless in Canada but it is also about the 20,650,000 Canadians living 3 months away from being homeless. According to a Global Television report 59% of us live paycheck to paycheck.... if our income stopped for some reason we would be out of our home in 3 months. The single greatest cause of poverty in North America is the lack of affordable housing (housing that costs no more then 35% of one's income).
The lack of affordable housing negatively impacts our economy, by drains on poverty support systems, such as food banks, health clinics, emergency shelters, as well as income supports. But imagine what would happen to the economy if suddenly almost 21,000,000 people had disposable income to pour back into the economy, through personal spending. Not to mention the savings by reducing the numbers of people on income support by more than 50%. Short sightedness on the part of governments, corporations, and western culture in general... has us saving pennies by burning dollars. As a taxpayer I find this outragous.
The solution is not that complicated. Every level of government should get as much land as possible into the hands of Habitat for Humanity. This affordable home ownership will reduce congestion in rental units. I'll address some of the concerns I have heard regarding this proposal in another essay. Here, I want to talk about the MONEY SENSE involved, since money seems to be the only vocabulary governments understand.
For the sake of easy math, I am going to say give Habitat for Humanity 5 acres of land (I'll assign it a value of $5,000,000) on this land they build 200 condos/townhouses each has an estimated property value of $200,000. Even at a very modest mill rate property taxes per unit $500 per year x 200 = $100,000 per year in 50 years the price of the property has been recouped. Of course, I do know a little something about double entry book keeping and our city may prefer to lease the 5 acres of land for $1 per year on a 100 year lease, thereby keeping the asset on their books. I believe they would still be collecting property tax as a sort of condo fee for providing city services but I admit I am not sure about how that would work.
Let us assume that the average family in this Habitat for Humanity complex has an income of $1500 net per month... Their mortgage has been reduced from 2/3 to 1/3 of that income, so every one of these 200 families has an additional $500 (totalling $100,000) per month to spend in local businesses. On a national level we can divide the 21 million low income people by 3; giving us 7 million families assuming half of these people are just bad money managers that still leaves 3..5 million low income families. Providing affordable housing for these folks would result in a staggering $1,750,000,000 (1.75 Billion Dollars) per month of disposable income going back into the Canadian economy... NOW THAT'S AN ECONOMIC STIMULUS PLAN...
I am not going to suggest reducing resources allocated to shelters and services for the homeless, because these services would experience a natural realignment with a reduction of 50% (poor & working poor who live homeless) of our current client population. Currently shelters are less about actually helping individuals and more about wrangling large numbers of people and what we refer to in the industry as harm reduction. The shelter system was designed for a very specific purpose and affordable housing would allow us to get back to doing our jobs properly.
Centre 4-5-4 September 25, 2010
A couple of months ago I came across an article online about an Ottawa woman who works with the homeless. Reading the article I was stuck by the thought, “That is my kind of social worker” when I get to Ottawa I must look her up. Two days ago I had the great good fortune to meet Mary Martha Hale… she shares my commitment to the homeless and practices what I call free-style social work. Basically free-style social work means treating everyone with kindness and respect and being present for the clients with whatever is needed in any given moment. This has been my personal philosophy and is shared by many of the people I have worked with over the years. Today I don’t wish to talk about “our Mary Martha” as she is affectionately referred to by her staff and clients. Today I want to talk about the result of putting that philosophy into action.
When I first arrived in Ottawa I went to Centre 454 and have visited often over this past month. Forged partly by design and partly by default… this place is what every drop-in should be… it is in a word flawless. OK… one flaw, on movie day, game playing should be moved into the meeting room.
Every staff member from administrator to volunteers spends much of their time interacting with the participants (Mary Martha’s word for clients). They will be chatting over coffee, playing cards or board games, having a smoke or just hanging out. This is how trust is built. Truly effective counseling must be done in an atmosphere of trust. Because these trust relationships lead to situations where a client may require private time with a staff person, the Centre’s small bank of offices is accessible for use by all staff, full or part-time. Community volunteers man the desk and do other task within their personal comfort level. Clients are hired for short stints to manage the laundry room or kitchen… this provides them with a little extra cash and a small taste of job responsibility.
Administration hires like minded individuals and compensates them appropriately… too often those working in human services are paid little more than minimum wage. I imagine getting a full time position at Centre 454 would be like becoming a tenured professor at some prestigious university. Much coveted and seldom vacated. Other then the core staff, there are a number of part-time staff, who after a few months will leave for full-time positions elsewhere. Normally, I would feel this is a bad practice, but in this case I see these positions as internships; a chance for young people to learn what social work is meant to be.
Because of the centre’s small size they have a schedule of services which are being provided by representative from other agencies. One day per week the housing help centre sends Allison, Wabano Native Health Centre sends Steve; there are also visits from public health and education and employment services. Most drop-ins try to provide these services in house. The advantage to the client of what Centre 454 is doing, is that it introduces the client to agencies outside their comfort zone. Once one gets to know a representative from meeting them at 454, going down to the agency itself for assistance becomes less intimidating. Instead of having one resource… Mary Martha’s participants are being given a whole community of resources.
Angels of the Road has taken me to probably 100 facilities in over half of Canada, and Centre 454 is light-years above and beyond anything else I have seen. Every agency within the shelter industry is well intended but sadly too often we are doing as much harm as good, for our clients. Providing the homeless and street population with warm beds and nourishing food is important. But if we are truly going to move people forward in their lives, we must warm the soul and nourish the psyche and no one I have found thus far, is doing this better then Centre 454.
Never lose sight of the incredible impact you have as you go about putting your time energy and love into your communities. Thank you …on behalf of a grateful and changing world.
So what brings me back to this forum? I have been giving much thought to the affordable housing models which are being used today. Bearing in mind that we were many decades without any affordable housing initiatives, since the failed city housing ghettos of the 60s and 70s. Hooray for social consciousness and what we do have…. but as with all things it is growing and hopefully evolving.
The problem most cities have with ending homelessness is that access to housing (as with most of our culture for thousands of years) is based on a meritocracy. The idea that one is more worthy then another….that each must earn the right to x y or z. I am not here to argue against or for the validity of meritocracy….there are examples in human and animal kingdoms which support both positions. I am simply saying that in ending homelessness, meritocracy does not work.
A person is not an addict because they love the taste of a smooth malt on the back on their throat, or the sensation of needle piercing their skin. They like being some place besides awake in their reality. As harshly as society may judge, we all judge ourselves more harshly. Now imagine having NOTHING; being NOTHING in a meritocracy where worth is rewarded. You have no value…. Why would you deserve a better life…a home… a job, the love and support of a family and/or a community? When someone has reached that point they cannot be motivated by rewards because they do not believe they merit a reward. When we start valuing people just because they ARE PEOPLE we will see a little less self-loathing and more aspiring from them.
Everyone deserves a place to call home. It can be done …Utah was the first to eliminate homelessness and one major Alberta city has followed their example. It does not matter why we give housing to anyone/everyone; maybe we are motivated by compassion or by the cost effectiveness of affordable housing ($20,000 per year against the cost of providing support services to a homeless person ($100,000 per year) the result is the same. Better quality of life for every member of our community.
The fact is we have been clinging to the delusion that the affluent 1950s will live again…. Times have changed and as a society we need to change also. In the 1950s there were more jobs then workers to fill them; now every job posting has from 50 to 300 applicants. Yes you will occasionally read a headline; northern Alberta or Saskatchewan begging for workers. They are begging for skilled labour and professionals. Industries rarely train workers any more (they did in the 50s). To get a job requires one get an education… in Canada colleges can cost $5000 per year, universities more than that per semester. With 60% of Canadian families living paycheck to paycheck… who has money to put their kids through school? So 60% of our work force is unskilled labour and we love and need our unskilled workers. They serve our coffee at Timmy’s; they show us where to find the coffee at our supermarket and they clean the coffee stains out of our silk blouses. God bless the service industry and all the beautiful people who stay on their feet 6 hrs at a time for minimum wage…we need them and love them. What would life be without drive-thru coffee? So when the other 49 to 299 applicants remain unemployed can we please stop drowned them in shame and guilt. We need to rethink social supports.
When I mention Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI is a program to give every Canadian a modest income which was first introduced in the 1970s) I am confronted with “how are we going to pay for that?” We will pay for it with the money currently being spent to administer social support systems EI, CPP, WCB, GIS, OAS, OW, ODSP (all other provincial counterparts) the list goes on and on. The government also pays for advocates to help you navigate a complex system of check balance ultimate design to judge who is and is not deserving of assistance. Those whom we determine unworthy of assistance then become clients of the shelter system and now starts costing the taxpayer (who pays for all the above as well) $100 per day per person. AWK we are spending BILLIONS to support a system set up in 1950s which is no long valid or workable in today’s economy.
A few days ago I posted a film clip on Facebook about deplorable housing conditions on one of the Ontario NDN (Indian) Reservations. This was posted f.y.i. and was not intended to evoke guilt or blame for anyone. I see reports of bad housing and bad water on APTN news almost daily. The comments that were made saddened me; I wonder if people make the same kind of judgements when they see ads about children living in squalor in Africa, India or Central America? Please stop judging Natives (and the poor) by what you “think” you know. NDNs are not supported by your tax dollar. Free university is an empty promise, the band pays if there is enough money and with education on reserves receiving 50% of the funding public schools get; those who go are ill prepared to succeed. Tax exemptions are only for status Natives and less than half of Canadian Natives have a registered status.
I will address each comment in bullet form here but I urge you to read my full article on the subject below; sorry it runs a little longer then usual.
1/ Justin Trudeau is making change as fast as he can. Our political system was born with the Magna Carta and carries a power=entitlement paradigm predating the Roman Empire. Basically he is trying to move forward knee deep in mud.
2/ No-one is killing the fossil fuel industry it is becoming obsolete due to technological advances in alternative energy sources.
3/ Homes on the reserves are owned by the band not the occupants; repairs are made at the discretion of chief and counsel. Some bands are well managed, some are corrupt and some are just flat out poor.
4/ Let’s not pretend it is an equal playing field. If housing condition are deplorable for a city renter we have a Landlord/Tenant board to complain to; and if a sewage line breaks or overflow contaminates our water the situation lasts days not years.
5/ All the scrubbing in the world is not going eradicate mold when your neighbourhood has become a flood plain or the band counsel has chosen not to repair your leaky plumbing.
6/ As for the white elephant… you try living in a house with kids and not have a tv or internet….my husband and I were gifted a tv when our elderly friend passed away. You have NO IDEA how that tv came to that family.
It is sad to know that we have a 3rd world country hidden within Canada’s borders; our very own dirty little secret. It is human nature to feel guilt when we do something wrong and to conceal the source of our shame. I am here to say out loud that I do not feel guilty about the plight of our Native brothers and sisters; nor should any other Canadian. No one alive today is responsible for creating this abhorrent situation so open your eyes and open your heart and stop being in denial. This problem has its roots in colonization and the only way to fix it is by being proactive…reading this article is a start. I encourage you to find blogs by a woman named Chelsea Vowel an articulate young activist for Native rights and advancement.
Colonization in the U.S. involved white people going to war with Natives and due to superior fire power kicking their little red butts. Treaties there were terms of surrender and any concession by the winners were just a panacea and ultimately ignored. What Canada did was to enter into treaties with Natives allowing them to believe it was a partnership (they were never truly regarded as equals). Then in 1876 we created the Indian Act which gave the federal government conservatorship over these uneducated heathens; for their own good, of course. Because of this the American Natives have always been more militant about pushing toward equality; while Canadian Natives have for the most part been compliant victims of a bureaucracy which had them (until recently) acquiescing to all levels of authority. I am thrilled by the increasing levels of civil demonstrations (and personal appeals for justice) around human rights issues. It is the first steps to breaking free of many decades of learned helplessness. I would personally like to burn the Indian Act but since that seems to be scary to the powers that be, let’s just remove any clause which contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Back to the housing / water crisis on Canadian reservations. Government should do something it is their responsibility to take care of the NDNs (Indians)… but until recently Natives did not participate in the political system (having only had the right to vote since 1960) and therefore had no independent voice. Out of sight out of mind. Letters and appeals to cabinet ministers for assistance around housing, health and welfare (clean water) were largely ignored in favour of voting constituencies. The town-site locations which were optimal 100 years ago, in many case have been negatively impacted by climate change or resource development. Because of the learned helplessness I spoke of in the last paragraph, the necessary changes have not made by the bands themselves. Everyone has been and in large part still is waiting for government to take action.
Let’s everybody stop pretending anything is going to get done by any government anytime soon. I would challenge the residents of these communities with flood issues to pick-up and move your community to higher ground. The government is unlikely to notice but if they do object tell them to fuck themselves; they had their chance to fix the situation and did not take it. Blockades, marches and posters are just another way of asking the government for permission. While civil disobedience is a catalyst to systemic change we also need direct action to remedy the exist issues of inadequate housing and clean water.
BE PROACTIVE. Don’t be afraid to get creative, if the military can set up bases and housing in under a week why not find out how they are doing it. What kind of housing option are being used to rebuild after natural disasters? Just like an earthquake in Haiti; these people are NOT responsible for the situation they find themselves in. And I ask my Native brothers and sisters, "can we set aside the distrust"? We did not cause the earthquake, we can only assist with the recovery efforts if you will allow us to do so. Most white people are (like me) good hearted and eager to do what we can to make this world a better place for all of our children and their children’s children. If your community/reservation has these problem contact Habitat and Kiwanis and Knights of Columbus (the irony is not lost on me LOL) or one of the hundreds of organization committed to serve our global community of humankind. When you have arranged a date and supplies then put out a public appeal for both skilled trades and unskilled labour on local tv and radio for any additional manpower you might need. I challenge everyone who can take the time and wield a hammer to join in building new homes.
If you belong to an aide agency and you spend your winters bringing clean water to villages in Africa or Central America, maybe you could look at doing the same for our Native communities in the summer. Most of these communities don’t have the equipment, expertise or money to take the needed steps to clean up their local water supply. It is time for all Canadians of every colour, creed and class make quality of life a priority. Decent housing, clean water and affordable food is a human right. We should all come together with the singular purpose of giving this to every Canadian (red, yellow black or white).
Meegwetch (Thank you)
Bonny (Cameron) Morningstar
Blogs New & Old
It is truly wonderful to see that people are still interested in the Angels of the Road... journey into homelessness. Maybe the research paper will influence the way the shelter industry develops.
About this new blog page ... here I will post new commentary around social justice issues as well as copies of my favourite blogs from the blogspot. If you want to follow my surreal journey in its entirety Angels of the Road Blogspot.