Friday, February 1, 2008

My rant

I ran into Jack* at the local grocery store. He was seventy-three when homelessness struck him down. He had an apartment, routine, a life. And then one Saturday morning the wrecking ball arrived with a knock on the door. "Why are you still here?" the deconstruction manager asked the twenty-four tenants of the little three story walk-up in an older part of the city. "We're about to tear this building down. Weren't you informed?"

No. They weren't. The apartment manager conveniently forgot to give them their three month notice and couldn't be found. He'd taken off with their last month's rent. No one knew what was happening and those who suspected didn't want to believe the truth.

Within twenty-four hours, Jack's belongings were put in storage and he took refuge in the only place he could afford in a city of spiralling rents. A homeless shelter. It was a humbling blow for a man who once served his country in Korea. Who stands every November 11 at the foot of the Cenotaph, medals carefully pinned to his chest as he sings 'O Canada' in his off-key voice.

He stayed at the shelter for nine months. Staff struggled to help him accept the nonsense that had become his life. They struggled to help him find a place to live that he could afford. Finally, a counsellor secured him a bed at a senior's residence. He moved out and after six months, Robert found his own place -- and a new wife. He's been married for seven months, and life according to Robert, couldn't be better.

I believe him. When I saw him at the grocery store he looked like a new man. He didn't shuffle his feet when he walked. His back wasn't stooped. There wasn't a permanent scowl on his face. And his words didn't drain out of his mouth in a constant stream of complaints. Gone was the torn and tattered red down jacket he always wore. His face no longer bore a scraggle of unshaven beard. His eyes were not watery.

He gave me a big hug when he saw me, the padded down of his new winter jacket a soft pillow between us. He laughed and joked. Showed me his full shopping cart piled with groceries. "I like being able to do my own shopping," he said. He winked and added with a grin. "I got married seven months ago. Found me a good woman. Life is as it should be."

Life is as it should be.

When living at a shelter, life is not as it should be. But for the countless thousands who pass through our doors every year, this is life as they know it.

This week, a 10 year plan was released that promises to end homelessness in our city. A laudable goal.

In it, the architects have described the thousands of affordable housing units they will build that will end, 'the disgrace', as they call it, of homelessness.

Homelessness is a disgrace -- but not because of the people who find themselves lost in its despair.

Homelessness is a disgrace because its origins are not found in individual lives, but rather in the collective fabric of our society. The crisis of homelessness is man made.

In the 10 year plan they talk of treatment beds and supported living and housing first models. All criticial and essential components of changing the face of homelessness. They talk about the cost to society if homelessness is not stemmed. They talk of the business case and all the proactive things they will do to end it -- but they don't talk about the essential changes needed to the economic drivers that contributed to the crisis we face today.

When profit motives drive economic growth, homelessness is a natural outcome. In our city, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede needed land for growth. The outcome was the displacement and disenfranchisement of hundreds of people who called Victoria Park home. In the name of progress, those individuals and families who resided under the shadow of the Stampede's expansion plans, lost their low income housing. In a city of exorbitant rents, they had nowhere else to go.

In other areas of the city, building cranes tower above the skyline. Concrete is poured and pilons erected upon the distant memories of the homes of those who once lived on the ground beneath their skeletal structures. In building up, we dream of a magnificent skyline soaring towards the clear blue skies above the great city we have created. This will be a model city of the future we tells ourselves as we applaud the intiative, entrepreneurial spirit and pioneer drive of our business leaders.

"We will never implement rent controls," government heads state vehemently. "It is not the Alberta way," and they shift gears to talk about the free market finding its balance, about market dynamics shifting gears. They don't talk about the toll in human capital. The children sleeping in cars because the market is in overdrive. They trot out band-aids to help the under-privledged, the working poor find affordable places to rent but they never roll-out solutions to curb the insatiable greed that drives families to the brink of despair.

Addictions, family violence, mental disorders, crime -- they all contribute to homelessness, one person at a time.

Policies, economic forces out of control, they affect entire segments of our society. They drive homelessness from the safe distance of pundits chair's over-stuffed with well-fed bureaucrats and wealthy executives who are committed to doing what it takes to end 'this disgrace'. They will also do anything, whatever the cost, to ensure their right to protect their shareholders stake in the ground upon which their company's were founded, is never shaken.

In our drive for better we have created a world of worse for thousands of people.

We can build affordable housing, open up rehab beds and create a database upon which to carefully track those who enter homelessness. We can close the front doors leading to homelessness and open up the back to their re-entry onto mainstreet but, until we look in the mirror of our social conscience, we will never see the toll our need for more has taken on those who have less than we can imagine.

As we build prosperity on the bedrock of the tearing down of our past, homelessness will continue to be driven forward upon the backs of those whose pasts keep them mired in the despair of knowing, they will never have enough to be part of 'the Alberta advantage' unless someone is willing to give up a part of 'their fair share'.

*not his real name

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