Homeless by decree

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
April 24, 2003

“We cannot have homeless people in our society. It’s just wrong,” Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson stated three years ago during one of her tours of the country. “As long as there are any, it will be on our agenda.” With her term as Governor-General now running out, Her Excellency has decided to make good on her vow by taking on another tour, this one focused on Canada’s cities and their homeless shelters.

“How can the richest city in Canada have people slipping through the cracks,” she asked of Calgary, the first stop. After bestowing the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award on Albertans who have demonstrated the best of intentions – eight such received awards in Calgary alone – Ms. Clarkson and her entourage left. She will later be visiting Saint John, Quebec City, Saskatoon, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in her Cities and Homelessness Tour.

Since her time left in the official service of her country is short, and the needs of the homeless great, let me remind her how the homeless got that way. Governments created homelessness. Before governments became involved in issues of homelessness, in fact, the modern concept of homelessness didn’t even exist. A homeless person was a hobo or a vagabond, someone without roots, often by choice.

The type of homeless people we trip over in the downtowns of our major cities today – those too poor or mentally ill to manage a roof over their head – were scarce a generation ago. A team of Columbia University researchers who tried to find people sleeping in Manhattan parks in 1964 could find only one. The New York Times didn’t reference the homeless in its index until 1983, Maclean’s magazine didn’t reference it until 1985, the Toronto Star until 1986. Homelessness as we know it was all but non-existent until two decades ago.

Then governments, generally with the best of intentions, changed their policies and created the human misery that now shames and appalls us all. By the 1980s, the homeless became ubiquitous in the downtowns of New York, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver and other large cities.

Many blame the homeless problem on “deinstitutionalization” – the eviction from hospitals of the severely mentally ill in the belief that granting them their independence was doing them a favour. But deinstitutionalization only accounts for a handful of the homeless. More than 90% of homeless people lack decent shelter for quite another reason: The government forbade housing for poor people.

Through regulations and expropriations, governments embarked on massive slum clearance projects in the 1960s and 1970s that wiped out much of the low-value housing stock in major population centres across the continent. New York City’s Bowery had 10,000 beds in 1965. By 1980, only 3,000 remained, and by 1990, New York City had lost almost half of its low-rent housing. The story was similar in Chicago, which lost all but 600 of the 10,000 spaces in the Loop area’s cubicle hotels, and 20% of its total stock of low-rent housing. Toronto lost virtually all of its 500 flophouse beds and one-third of its rooming houses. Between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s, the number of unsubsidized low-cost units fell 54% in the typical large U.S. metropolitan area.

At the same time that governments demolished substandard private sector housing, they regulated the poor out of many residential districts through restrictions on boarding and basement apartments. In one area alone did governments relax standards – they legalized vagrancy. Many of those ousted from their low-rent accommodations then found free housing in the form of streets, back alleys and parks.

The consequences of these government policies, which produced many visible losers and no evident winners, are now tragically with us, borne mostly by homeless victims of invisible government policies. According to a 1997 study by the Clarke Institute in Toronto, depression and other mild forms of mental illness burden the great majority of homeless, their plight exacerbated by alienation and a lack of community. In earlier decades, such social misfits lived in tenements, seedy hotels and rooming houses. Or they lived with relatives who would take them in. Or they would sublet rooms in exchange for cash or household services, typically babysitting for women, odd jobs for men. The arrangements were generally imperfect for both landlord and tenant – alcoholics, the mentally ill and other social misfits tend to make for poor company – yet they made do. They often maintained relations, however poorly, with those in their neighbourhood and were, as we might say today, integrated into the community. Relatively few people relied on shelters.

Those who urged governments to demolish substandard private sector housing expected higher-quality public housing to fill the void. But public housing became an abject failure. Much of the public housing that was built became breeding grounds for crime and despair and is now being torn down. But even if public housing was not soul-destroying, governments are unable and unwilling to provide enough cash to make a dent in the homeless problem.

Canada’s leading homeless advocates, and the governments that have their ear, have come to understand this. Many now demand that the government provide substandard housing for the poor, on the sensible rationale that poor housing is better than no housing. Housing for the poor is making a comeback in Toronto and elsewhere.

Substandard government-built housing is a start, but a poor one – the government record at building affordable housing of any kind has been abysmal, as virtually all housing advocates acknowledge. Much better to stop more serviceable buildings from being torn down by tearing out of rule books bureaucratic requirements that undermine their preservation. Much better to allow private developers to build units that aren’t up to modern codes that require more parking, or a better-equipped kitchen. Much better to promote a society of truly caring Canadians by stripping away rules – like prohibitions on boarders and basement apartments – that prevent homeowners from voluntarily supplying a crying need.

Homelessness is wrong, Ms. Clarkson, and it does belong on your agenda. But handing out awards won’t solve it. The agenda I’ve described – nothing more than a return to pre-politically correct times – would put the problem to bed.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation. www.urban.probeinternational.org, E-mail: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com


Related articles:
Parasites in the walls
Homeless in paradise

Readers respond:

Monday, May 12, 2003

Lawrence Solomon is right to keep homelessness in the public debate. Yet, in acknowledging the Governor-General’s own commitment to this pressing issue, he may have created a misleading impression of Her Excellency’s visit to Calgary, requiring clarification on three points.

First, the purpose of the visit. The Governor-General launched the first of seven Urban Visits with a five-day stay in Calgary last month. These visits examine “The Good City,” considering issues such as citizenship, diversity, creativity, social justice and urban planning. While the issue of homelessness is pressing, it is not the main focus of the visit. This is not, to use Mr. Solomon’s words, the Governor-General’s “Cities and Homelessness Tour.”

Second, the Caring Canadian Award. Her Excellency’s visit began, as Mr. Solomon states, with eight presentations of the Governor-General’s Caring Canadian Award. This award honours those “unsung heroes” whose tremendous volunteer efforts make our communities better. However, Mr. Solomon may have left readers with the impression that this award is specifically related to homelessness. This is incorrect: The recipients of this award help individuals, families and communities in countless ways.

Third, the scope of the visit. Mr. Solomon also states – incorrectly – that the Governor-General then left the city right after presenting the awards. In fact, she stayed four more days, meeting with social service agencies, innovative philanthropists, urban planners, developers, immigrant associations and students to get a broad picture of the city. The visit culminated with a public roundtable forum attended by several hundred people who discussed the strengths and challenges of civic engagement in Calgary.

The Governor-General takes seriously her role as a catalyst for dialogue, and will continue to encourage thoughtful and useful engagement on the issues – including homelessness and affordable housing – that currently face Canada’s cities.

Lachlin McKinnon, special advisor to the Governor-General, Ottawa.

Lawrence Solomon responds:

In my column, I portrayed the Governor-General’s trip to Calgary as “focused on Canada’s cities and their homeless shelters.” The Governor-General’s special advisor acknowledges the former but disavows the latter. I cannot explain this error on the special advisor’s part. Perhaps he is unaware of who and what the Governor-General was visiting during her Calgary tour.

The morning after she arrived in Calgary, Her Excellency visited the Calgary Urban Project Society where, her own publicity department reports, she met “with front-line staff and homeless families.” From there she went to a noon meeting at One World Child Development Centre, which featured “a discussion with homeless mothers.” At 3 p.m. she was at the Back Door Project, “Meeting with the Executive Director, volunteers and street youth to discuss the project’s alternative, innovative model to helping young people get off the street.” Next, a 7 p.m. discussion with Social Venture Partners Calgary, which has assisted more than 300 young women renounce (as the organization puts it) their “former lifestyle on the streets, thereby breaking the cycle of abuse for generations to come.”

Her Excellency had no other scheduled appearances that day. The next morning saw her at The Mustard Seed Street Ministry, which describes itself as “a non-profit Christian humanitarian organization that has been providing services for the homeless, street people of Calgary since 1984.” Other people she met in Calgary, including two recipients of her Caring Canadian awards, are also prominent for their work with the homeless. As Her Excellency’s PR department announced, one “helped to establish a youth shelter” and another “regularly patrols the streets of Calgary to offer advice and friendship to people struggling with addictions, disabilities and poverty.” I did not write, as the special advisor seems to think, that the Governor-General left Calgary “right after” handing out the awards. Neither did I characterize them as homeless awards. I called them awards for people “who have demonstrated the best of intentions.” Canada has no shortage of such people.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

I have read with interest your article in this morning’s National Post.

Some years ago I recall that a developer wished to build a block of apartments in Vancouver that would be affordable to people of low income. Permission was not granted because (to my recollection) the granting authority said that, because the apartments were so small the apartment block was likely to become a slum.

When I graduated from university it was difficult to find living accommodation in Vancouver. Single people usually lived in a succession of boarding houses and what were termed “housekeeping” rooms. By the time that the proposal for the low-income apartments was put forward I had moved up-scale. I remember, however, that when I read about the proposal I thought it a splendid idea and I still do. Many people of limited income would be very pleased to have available small self-contained living quarters. A beginning might be made to permit blocks of small apartments – not government funded – that would remove the stigma associated with small size. Such apartments could be attractive to many people, who for reasons not necessarily financial, wish to have a small abode.

I trust that your article will stimulate thought on the problem of housing and look forward to seeing the next in the series.

Beryl E. March, Vancouver, British Columbia

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