Response to the Georgia Straight

The Georgia StraightI find it intriguing that the Straight found it appropriate to print two responses disagreeing with my comment on the “Vancouver’s Homeless Demand Solutions” story, yet didn’t see fit to print my original comment itself. As I recall, quoting responses without context is poor journalistic form. Nevertheless, despite that oversight, I think it worthwhile to respond to these comments.

For the record, my original comment:

I think a bit of perspective is required here: Let’s assume that the number of homeless is 15K, as suggested above. BC’s population is an estimate 4.4M according to BC Stats, which means that the homeless comprise 1/3 of a percent of the population. Even if the number is doubled, it’s still only 2/3 of a percent.

Am I happy there’s people who are homeless? Of course not. But by the same token, I think it’s unrealistic to expect nobody to be homeless, much in the same way it’s unrealistic to expect 100% employment.

I don’t have a solution to this problem and, in all honesty, I’m not sure one exists. However, I don’t think giving people cheap housing is going to solve the problem – it’s a hand-out that doesn’t solve the fundamental underlying issues, and it insults the rest of the hard-working population in the interim.

First, let me be clear: I’m in favour of programs to reduce homelessness. However, I have a problem with programs that choose to throw money at symptoms rather than causes. If history is any guide, these programs will not provide the desired results (one only needs to look at the $1.4B invested in the Downtown Eastside with few results), which does a disservice to those working hard to pay their taxes to pay for these ill-conceived projects.

According to the original Straight article, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people (note that we’re talking about genuinely homeless people here, not those who are struggling with housing affordability – I’ll come to them in a moment). Contrary to popular belief, the problem for these individuals is not a lack of housing – that’s a symptom. For the majority, the root cause is untreated mental health issues and substance abuse. These factors limit employment options and create the conditions that lead to homelessness.

The real solution is not to throw money at cheap housing, the solution is to provide proper, comprehensive mental healthcare in BC. Proper mental heath treatment can reduce or eliminate the factors that limit these individuals’ ability to be fully functioning members of society. That is the real solution.

Unfortunately, even comprehensive mental heath services are not sufficient to cure homelessness. Although one commenter called it “disgusting” for me to state that it’s unrealistic to expect nobody to be homeless, I stand by this statement. Even when adequate mental heath services are available, there are some individuals that simply will not adhere to treatment regimens required to enable them remain functioning members of society. For example, some schizophrenics complain that they don’t feel themselves when they’re on their medications, and choose to stop taking their treatment. My mother, a psychiatric nurse for twenty years, can attest to this phenomenon.

Unless we discover a way to cure mental health issues instantaneously or choose to, as one commenter suggested, put individuals who aren’t capable of functioning in society under the care of the state, the root cause of homelessness will remain. And as long as there is one person without a home, there will be homelessness. It’s an unfortunate, horrible thing to say. But it’s also reality.

Of course, housing affordability is also a major problem. Proponents of social housing projects, such as Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project, are quick to point out that money spent on the new convention center could have bought 4,250 deluxe inner-city homes. So let’s pretend that happened –what would be the result? Without the convention center project, we would have missed out on the benefits of the project:

  • 4500 direct and indirect jobs
  • $1.6B economic activity during the convention construction
  • 61 events between now and 2012 (which could not have been accommodated without the new facility)
  • $2 billion additional economic activity in the province between now and 2012

Not constructing the convention center would have eliminated a recurring source of jobs and economic stability. In other words, the very things that enable people to afford housing in the first place and that decrease the likelihood of people slipping into homelessness. The very result organizations such as the Carnegie Community Action Project would like to see.

The solution here is not simply to build some subsidized housing and pat ourselves on the back. It’s addressing the real problems, namely lack of proper mental healthcare. And the money required to provide that solution has to come from somewhere – namely income generated from new economic activity.

Given the dire economic straits we find ourselves in, I would argue that it’s more prudent for the government to focus on addressing the 7.6% unemployed British Columbians, rather than 1/3 of a percent homeless. After all, the money for all of these social programs has to come from somewhere, and lack of employment only increases the possibility of people becoming homeless in the first place.

These are not nice choices for a society to have to make. But in a world of constrained resources, you can’t have it all. You need to focus on the root problems, not symptoms, and try to generate the best result for the most people. To do otherwise is impractical.

4 thoughts on “Response to the Georgia Straight

  1. You should write into the Straight itself. In the words of Bart Simpson, “[...you] have to reach people whose opinions actually matter!”

  2. I’m glad that your original letter is now at least linked to by the Straight. Good points.

  3. You should note _how_ the government is trying to solve the unemployment issue. Unemployment in BC peaked in the early part of this decade but the employment growth in the subsequent years was almost entirely due to construction and real estate related jobs. If you’re wondering why the government is redoing BC Place — a questionable economic payback if I’ve ever seen one — it’s because it employs the skills of people who are going to be out of work as the building boom of the past 5 years wanes.

    Why not, instead of putting $500MM into a new roof, build and adequately staff small and privately-run mental health facilities around the province? Probably because when you look at such projects, they don’t get the crane operators and lattice workers back to work, and there is an ongoing liability line item on the balance sheet. Not so with a retractable roof operated by a private outfit; or a new toll bridge spanning the Fraser River, assuming the current perfectly good free one is destroyed.

  4. Hi Brendon, it’s jm here. Had a friend who used to work for a homeless charity in London and had this discussion with her many times. I do agree with you. A disproportionate number of homeless people have mental health problems and they really do need help and targeting by trained professionals.

    I do believe there are also people who choose to be homeless through the choices they make AND then don;t avail themselves of the programs to get off the street. For this reason some people do choose to be on the street and no amount of money is going to get them off it.

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