Sunday, May 25, 2014

Poverty in the City: It's Not the Agencies - It's All of Us

I spent the day on Whyte Avenue on Saturday. I was accosted by a panhandler almost as soon as I got out of my cab. Throughout the day I witnessed homeless and transient people pushing full shopping carts, sitting on the sidewalk, staggering around drunk, and swearing loudly. I saw the evidence of their lives scattered throughout the area: litter, broken bottles, stains on the concrete from all kinds of bodily fluids (granted - some of this may be the result of bar hoppers needing to rid themselves of their last few drinks). Yet this is still considered a desirable area of Edmonton to live, work, and hang out.

The next day, I took a walk through Chinatown, and saw pretty much the same things. However, in this case, many have come to expect problems in this area of the city with homelessness, addictions, and mental illness. Many of the city's agencies that serve this population are nearby. Some people blame the concentration of agencies for the problems. Some consider the inner city a much less desirable area to live, work, or hang out because of all of the social issues there. It is just an accepted fact that in that part of the city, excrement occurs (often literally).

However, as I observed this past weekend, these problems are everywhere throughout the city. And where there is an agency, there is perceived blame. The Neighbour Centre is near Old Strathcona and according to a friend of mine who used to work there, the actual neighbours of the centre are none too pleased. Not from where I grew up, in the Jasper Gates area, the Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre (and its associated social housing) has garnered many of the same complaints I have heard levied against places like the Boyle McCauley Health Centre. Heck, the first place I ever saw a man urinate outside was in the parking lot of the Jasper Gates shopping centre.

The question is: what can be done about poverty and its resulting social disorder? There is no easy answer to such a complicated question. Yet it is so easy to point out the problems and complain about them - I myself am guilty of such behaviour - but not as simple to try to think of solutions. I am an activist with political leanings that are left of centre. This world view has shaped my perspective on social issues in general, and specific ones such as poverty and housing.

In my mind, the first question that needs to be asked is why there is poverty and homelessness in such an affluent city in the first place? All poverty, everywhere in the city - it is not okay to just accept the unacceptable in a lower income, rougher area. The answer, my friend, is systemic and will require systemic changes. Basically, we have a political and economic system (the two are inextricably interconnected) that is based on greed. The rich are getting richer and the middle class is being eroded.

So, the answer is not throwing more money at the problem. It's not further concentrating essential services and agencies in parts of the city that are already saturated. And it certainly is not gentrification. We - all of us - need to change the way we look at issues such as material wealth, consumerism, and the way we make a living. We need to question who we vote for and why, and try to effect change on a grassroots level.

As an activist, I get very angry at seeing the inequalities in our society. But anger will only take someone so far and no more. Anger needs to lead to action. Otherwise, it just leads to ulcers and depression. Maybe I am being overly idealistic here, but if idealism can be a motivating force (along with anger!), then maybe that is the first step towards what we need to do.