Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Story of the Working Poor

Shhhh! This is a dirty secret that nobody likes talking about. Well, it's not really a secret, because there is information about the issue everywhere. More accurately, we are - as we should be - embarrassed by the glaring fact that, in our great nation of Canada, 1 in 10 people (nearly 3.5 million of us) live in poverty.These findings come from a report recently released by the Salvation Army, and the document also outlined the unfortunate statistic that 35% of homeless men in British Columbia are employed. Infuriated by such a grim forecast for our Olympic Nation? Not sold on the data? Well, you can email the Salvation Army's Territorial Public Relations Director, Andrew Burditt, at andrew_burditt(at) if you have any questions, comments or concerns.

Moving on...

Wow. 3.5 million. People. Canada. Employed homeless people? No wonder people from the developing world are so staggeringly disappointed by our Canadian communities when they visit. According to the Human Development Index, Canada is tied for fourth (with Luxembourg and Sweden - take that, Switzerland!) as the overall most desirable country in which to live. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the United Nations think we're doing a pretty good job of, well, being a society. Here's a pretty key problem with our society, though: according to a 2007 Statistics Canada report, "the income gap between rich and poor has widened over the past ten years and income inequality is greater in Canada than it is in most other developed countries." No kidding. When a quarter of Canada's homeless receive income from paid employment and an astounding 57% receive income from other sources like welfare (37%), disability (16%) or a pension (4%), I wonder how bad things have gotten in places around the world, such as Switzerland, the UK and the United States, where the income gap is even worse. What will it take for us to create a just and inclusive society - in Vancouver, Canada and beyond? Or do we even really want one?

Here's a breakdown of how some resident experts think things are going:

The Big, Fat, Stinkin', Global Picture: I dunno, Bill Maher doesn't usually steer me wrong, and he has some pretty important things to say about our global, American-influenced addiction to greed.

It turns out greed is not good. Too many people in Britain today are "professional, single and poor." In fact, a recent story by the up-and-coming news agency BBC suggested that the number of people living in poverty - the working poor - has increased by 300,000 since 1996. Someone who retires in Britain today is more likely than their parents to live out their days in poverty. With stats like these, should we really be "internationally developing" and offering advice to the developing world?

The Canadian Picture:
Look, Canada. Recent findings show that 89% of wealthy Canadians do not want hungry peasant mobs with pitchforks overwhelming their gated communities (the other 11% love a good fight, apparently). Chuckle if you like, but also be mindful of history. In my third year at Bishop's University, I wrote a paper called Whoa Buddy, where you goin' with that pitchfork? (Peasant Rebellions in Seventeenth Century France), and, while we're not quite at a pitchfork stage yet, some of the data and stories from my paper are unfortunately similar to some of the situations today - 42% of homeless men in the prairies are employed; many of them have pitchforks, I reckon. And if you think that putting an idea of poverty into context using seventeenth-century examples is ridiculous, well, I have some Somali pirates that I'd love to introduce you to...

"The homeless population is disturbingly large and even more disturbing growing in size, in scope and in its connection to mental illness," said The Honourable Michael Kirby, Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. "Recent research shows 1 in 7 users of emergency shelters across Canada are children and almost a third of Canada's homeless are youths aged 16-24. Street counts of homeless people indicate their numbers have increased at an alarming rate." And keep in mind, statistics show that nearly a quarter of these people have jobs.

The BC Picture: A recent study by Simon Fraser University's Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMA) estimated that in British Columbia, the current financial cost to taxpayers for services to homeless people with severe addictions and/or mental illness is $55,000 a year per person. In contrast, providing these people with adequate housing and supports costs $37,000 a year per person. This saves taxpayers $211 million dollars a year in direct costs. A British Columbia shelter user put it in personal perspective: "In my case, I get enough money each month to live. I get over twelve hundred dollars a month - Old Age Pension, Canada Pension and supplement, so that should be enough for me to live on, but I'm having a terrible time trying to find affordable housing." Whether it's the Salvation Army report or a statement from the Ministry of Community or the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, the consensus opinion on how to tackle homelessness is with affordable housing.

The Vancouver Pre-Olympic Showcase Picture:
Recent findings show that homelessness in Vancouver has grown by about 250% since 1994. According to a 2008 "homeless count" by an SFU-led group of students, faculty and volunteers, there are nearly 15,500 homeless people in the Lower Mainland. If I were a businessperson in Vancouver, I'd demand affordable housing - and lots of it. Here's why: I strongly doubt that my employees who might pay between $650-$1,100 per month in rent are going to work for $8 an hour. I also don't think that employees who live in shelters or on the street are going to be incredibly motivated or engaged in my business. After all, it's in our business community's best interest to have affordable housing.

The 2010 Olympics are going to be the greatest advertisement for the city of Vancouver in the history of, well, the city of Vancouver. We even have a sexy, charming and downright nice Mayor! First, I hope this month-long ad is not a Harper-style attack ad. Second, when the world sees how beautiful it is here, I hope we have a strong enough commitment to social justice and not sell our city to the highest bidders from around the world who arrive, take-in the Olympics, drink the water, and commit to staying here no matter what the price. Vancity, we're less than a year away from a watershed moment - a tipping point - in our community's history. Let's not screw it up by being greedy...

So what are the next steps?
Well, I'm no expert like the high-paid staff at The Tyee, but it might be a good idea to explore some of the following five ideas:

  1. Get students and young people involved through SERVICE LEARNING initiatives early and often. By linking academic learning outcomes to personal and professional development within the context of community service, well, our young people will grow of leaders with a more comprehensive understanding of the social problems that, clearly, continue to cripple our supposedly sparkling communities.
  2. Talk about the problem.We need CITIZEN JOURNALISTS who have no loyalty to corporate sponsors to hit the streets with pens, paper, cameras, and good intentions (not to mention a sprinkle of idealism) to tell the stories of Canada's homeless in a way that will engage our entire community and motivate us to collaborate on all levels and solve the problem together. Or be vocal in a different way and wear a white Make Poverty History bracelet, just like in the picture!
  3. Put hippies, land developers and oil barons at the same table. Like I said, we need to solve the problem TOGETHER. Growing up in Merville, British Columbia has given me a soft spot for hippies, mostly because I've got some in me. But I kinda sorta don't really like them most of the time (editor's note: mostly, they are frustrating, as the staff at The Weekly Gumboot makes it a point to be positive and see the good in all people, places and things; even cannibals in Winnipeg watching American Idol). Ironically, hippies rarely compromise - with each other or with those they deem worthy of "enemy" status. They also aren't very well organized. Oil barons are very well organized. For the most part, so are developers. We all have a common interest for prosperity and the betterment of our community. They're just subjective perceptions of a different sort. Working against each other in silos isn't going to solve anything, though. We need ideas from everywhere to build community. Now pass the bong, man...
  4. VOLUNTEER. Barack Obama recently passed the Serve America Act. Rwanda has compulsory community service one Saturday per month. A recent pole in 24 Hours found that 65% of Lower Mainlanders do not want to volunteer. People. We can do better. And, as it turns out, we kinda have to if we want to be a global role model.
  5. Make SOUND CONSUMER CHOICES. From global to local, purchasing products that are made by people who make a decent, livable wage is still the greatest way for us to make a collective and powerful impact on how things are done in our local, regional, national, and global communities. Have you seen how amazing the architecture, food and service at the Convention Centre? It reveals our potential...
A final thought. The Human Development Index has three symbols that put a ranked country's position in context: a green, upward triangle means it improved from the previous survey, a blue line means it stayed the same, and a red, downward triangle means it got worse. In the rankings, there are a lot of green triangles, indicating that, on the whole, things on are planet are getting better. No matter what the panic mongering media tells us.

Things are getting better, sure. And yet we still have 3.5 million people living in poverty in, according to the Human Development Index, one of the best country's on the planet. Things could be a lot better a lot faster if we all get a little more involved. So there it is. The next move is yours, community...


1 comment:

Michelle said...

Great post, John. The numbers truly are staggering.

The Ontario government has just released it's plan to address the affordable housing issue in their province - they've promised to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure everyone has “adequate, suitable and affordable housing” and it has launched a provincial consultation plan. Over the summer, their provincial housing minister will be hosting regional meetings in 12 communities across Ontario, and the government has launched a new web site to collect issues and solutions.

The solutions to creating affordable housing will be different in every community - be that more funding, new laws, or better programs and services - and the only way to learn about what those solutions are is to speak to people in those communities.

It will be interesting to see the outcome of this community consultation process - perhaps it's something B.C. might consider looking at.

For more info: