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Archive for May 29th, 2013

Why are there homeless people in Vancouver?

with 12 comments

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job

The CBC interviewed her on The Current and The Early Edition – you can read a condensed version here – but this question and answer seemed to hit the crux of the matter

Q: Why were so many people on the streets and in the doorways?

A: We had several people collide in the early 90s. We had the federal government pull out of supplying subsidized housing for the very poor. We had been developing rapidly in Vancouver so the old rooming houses had been torn down and the apartments that had been built weren’t affordable for anybody with a low income.

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver's homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job.

Judy Graves, the City of Vancouver’s homeless advocate, retires after more than two decades on the job. (CBC )

We had welfare cutbacks, and the system became so difficult that people with any kind of brain injury or mental illness could not navigate the system.

There were government programs – but they were cut. Homelessness was the result. I would say that the result was inevitable. I would go further. I would say that homelessness was created deliberately.

There has been a steady drumbeat throughout my working life that taxes were too high, and that government spending was wasteful. Money should be left in peoples’ pockets so they could spend it – not some bureaucrat. And the market was a much more efficient system for ensuring a better outcome. There was a stream of people claiming that the intellectual foundations of the Chicago school of economists were far more intellectually respectable than “the left”. Friedrich Hayek – of whom I had never heard when studying political philosophy – was now canonized. There were a number of platitudes that were recited about the rising tide that raised all boats, that increasing economic growth would benefit everybody. That wealth would “trickle down”.

It was, of course, all nonsense. Mostly lies and half truths. What was actually happening was that the rich had decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes. They disapproved of the priorities of society and wanted to keep their wealth for their own indulgences. Only a few areas were to be protected – or possibly see increased spending. Defence, prisons and policing.  After “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” it was easy and popular to close grim mental institutions. There was talk of “care in the community” but none was ever provided.

And even though tax rates for the wealthy plummeted, the expected increase in government revenues that was supposed to occur never did. The wealthy were no more willing to pay lower taxes than high ones, and came up with ever more creative ways of hiding their money. They moved it to tax havens. Tax avoidance became the major source of income for a number of small, independent countries that had very little else to generate foreign earnings. The Cayman Islands has a bit of tourism – but earns much more from looking after money than people.

I can clearly recall an economics lesson learned at East Ham Grammar School. The teacher had been a well paid Ford executive but left that job to teach there. And I can still see him sitting at the front of the room arguing with some conservative minded students. He said that he actually felt that he ought to pay taxes, because he appreciated what those taxes bought. Not the least of which was the room in which we were sitting.

There is no doubt at all that many publicly funded services are far more efficient than their private sector comparators. Healthcare is the most obvious. The management cost of the US private system – mostly insurance companies looking at ways to avoid paying for procedures – greatly exceeds that of the public systems like Canada or the UK. ICBC is actually a cheaper way to provide car insurance, with a better outcomes – especially when their collision data is used to drive road safety measures, something a private sector insurer would never consider. The privatization of British Rail resulted in public sector costs that were four times higher than they were  in public ownership. Competition did not drive down costs.

In order to pull off this triumph, the elite have had to hijack democracy. We keep on voting for right wing governments, despite their obvious failures. Well, a lot of people no longer vote. That makes things a lot easier. The right wing has mastered the art of storytelling – the “narrative” now always trumps anything backed by objective research. And, just in case, those engaged in such activities will be silenced. Many willingly collude with these devices. The “buy in” to the myths and legends is quite impressive. And those of us who have facts and figures on our side are urged “don’t go negative” – with the result here we have recently seen.

The cure for homelessness has always been obvious and staring us in the face. House them. The private sector has a long and miserable record of housing the poor – since exploitation is always going to trump any other strategy for a rent seeking or profit maximizing entity. The public sector’s involvement is more problematic. The record is spotty, partly due to the way that its activities were always moderated by those who were less than enthusiastic about it succeeding – or being seen to succeed. It is only when there is fear of the lack of a social safety net that people will comply with requirements that are obviously against their own best interests – but they see little or no alternative. Homelessness – and people begging on the streets – serve as a useful minatory device. This is what will happen to you if you don’t co-operate.

The City, of course, has no powers that it could use to actually address the  problem. Even the City of Vancouver, which has a Charter and thus has somewhat more ability than other lesser municipalities entirely subject the whims of the legislators. They may  indeed hire another advocate. They may allow a few more shelters to open – but only in really bad weather, of course. Not all the time. And the shelter provision is minimal: it does not even pretend to be housing.   And the shelter experience itself drives many to the streets as comparatively safer places.

Postscript – please also read the comment by MB: the last paragraph of this post is unfair to the City of Vancouver, and I apologize for that. But not everybody shares his opinions about these developments

UPDATE “30,000 Canadians are homeless every night, 200,000 Canadians are homeless in any given year, national report says” CBC from which we learn

“Vancouver, through a series of public and private partnerships, has achieved a 66 per cent reduction in street homelessness.”

This post was further updated on December 31, 2013 with the addition of two links – one on why people don’t vote and another on how Utah intends to end homelessness

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2013 at 9:21 am

Posted in housing, politics

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