The vast resources invested in Victoria’s homeless—without apparent success—provide incentive and the means to fashion a new narrative about this city.
All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I BEGIN WITH THIS CALVINO FANCY to remind myself and you, reading, that when any of us says “I love Victoria” or “I love Beacon Hill Park,” we are declaring a romantic connection; and that in such a declaration we are committing ourselves to care, which is love’s great task, and to stewardship, which is necessary citizen-work. I’ll pick up this thread a bit later.
We’re two-thirds of the way through 2020, The Year of No Summer. The Year of Maybe. Witnesses to world history, we appear to have our toes resting on the close of one of humanity’s chapters and searching, half-blind, for the currently uncertified dawning of another. History, like atmosphere, is everywhere, all at once, and not an easy candidate for framing; we don’t get to stand outside and gain perspective. Snapshots (and claims) are approximate, tentative, matters not of fact but opinion. Still, there seems to be no missing that COVID-19 is Nature’s latest experimental attempt to cull the herd and send a last, prefigurative, cracks-of-doom warning about the impacts and consequences of looming climate change. (No, wrong, Gene, it’s God’s way of giving Donald The Healer Trump yet another opportunity to demonstrate his caring leadership skills and qualifications for a second presidential term.)
Given such Wagnerian conditions, it’s no surprise that the “physics” of current history is this: a large, menacing near-future is hurtling toward our communities and global society; we feel uneasy, edgy, want to move out of the way, but lack the internal social poise to make, and the tools to execute, a Plan B. And besides, where the hell do we go? There’s no Planet B (apart from this one without us).
Maybe we could, uh, alter human behaviour and get right with life?
Nah, don’t be silly!
I read recently about French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard who defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives,” by which he means ideologies that “totalize all knowledge and experience.”
I haven’t done much totalizing lately, but I get that postmodernism is characterized by “sensitivity to the [claims] of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” I would add “or maintaining social and cultural dominance.” Lyotard, had he had a gift for the vernacular, might have said that we’re in an age when we have all been shot out of cannons and are wandering or lost on the landscape.
But to leave such maundering and thread-pulling behind and firmly establish local relevance and scale, consider: what is, or was, Victoria’s metanarrative?
“A little bit of Olde England.”
Always an illusion at the deepest levels, but a credible and intact public belief when I arrived here in 1970, that cultural metanarrative—that way of explaining and understanding this place, its propriety, its boredom, its safety and social tone—has evaporated; and these days, for better or worse, we’re more “a little bit of West End Vancouver” than of Dedham, Essex.
I’d like to swap out “metanarrative” for the more digestible and modestly scaled “purpose” or “story” and suggest that places (including this one) don’t have stories anymore, or are losing their stories, meta or otherwise. There’s something in the nature of modernity (or postmodernity), something in its trends and forces, that leaves story behind, consigns story to “back then.” Blame any or all of globalization and the loss of locational distinction; the spread of Walmart and Costco retail monoculture; the socio-cultural and existential shift or drift from “us” (the human group) to “me” (the individual); the disembodied “connectivity” of cellular and internet; the transformational impacts of AI, robotics and “smart” processes and systems; an evolutionary shift in human consciousness.
Increasingly, this puts all of us in a strangely fictional relationship to place: where’s home without visual or distinguishing cultural cues, without boundaries and a behavioural map? Humanity is becoming something different, and fluid times make cultural compass-work, community identity, challenging.
Shoshana Zuboff writes about this in the opening chapter of her ominous book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: “We can choose [home’s] form and location, but not its meaning. Home is where we know and where we are known, where we love and are beloved. Home is mastery, voice, relationship, and sanctuary.” Zubroff continues, “The sense of home slipping away provokes an unbearable yearning. Now, the disruptions of the 21st century have turned these exquisite anxieties and longings of dislocation into a universal story that engulfs each one of us.”
“Where we know and are known”…Isn’t that a definition of community?
You have to look no further than the conspicuous homeless camping in Beacon Hill Park to realize that just such monumental, symbolic concerns are raging right here in Victoria’s home and, by legend, its front yard. A petition protesting the camping use of the park, the visual and physical appropriation, the loss of appeal of Victoria’s outstanding natural asset, has attracted an extraordinary 25,000-plus signers. To be generous, the City, perhaps overwhelmed by other exigencies and out of additional bandwidth, has done a poor job of acknowledging that tents scattered throughout Beacon Hill Park exert a profound change on the place and on peoples’ feelings about the park, and somehow damage the fragile bonds that make this place an “us.”
Tents in Beaconhill Park
So, Beacon Hill Park is the skirmish line in an urban and social sorting out of values and practices—none lacking in complexity, nuance or counter-argument. With some regret, I wonder if, in our de-institutionalized times, conditions (and socially successful outcomes) don’t require higher levels of direct community engagement, intervention and management—more citizens. I write “regret” because the call for more social investment, more citizenship and participation, can seem annoying and retrograde. Many people argue that they give and invest enough, through tax dollars and volunteering and contributions, and so on. But in abstracted times like our own, it may not be a matter, or just a matter, of enough, but of what, and how, and by what social means, resources are directed and delivered.
On the subject of enough, let me pose this windy question: if you took all of the “homeless industry” cash and the calculable human budget including the people, the program delivery efforts, the buildings, the offices, the direct cash allowances and subsidies, donations and contributions, senior government investment, the costly and reactive responses by police, other security, health emergency and social safety professionals, costs from theft and property crime, insurance costs, and the consultants and policy design costs, and the political time, and the reporting and data-gathering, and community social fabric damage that may not have a price tag, but certainly has a price, and divided all of that by the number of homeless—a “universe” of about 1,500 in our region—what might the real per capita cost or social investment be? Might better service and housing delivery protocols and models be found?
I mean, please, provide me with some novel explanation, something I haven’t yet considered, to help me to understand how, even with all of these targeted resources, a vast, socially damaging problem coalesces and endures? All of that investment, and it isn’t working better; isn’t—even putting wider social impacts and other considerations to the side—doing a better job of protecting the homeless themselves from a host of adversities and isn’t, at a minimum, housing them?
Such an initiative—the successful care and protection of all—might be the start of, and part of, a new social story for this city that waved goodbye to Olde England some time ago, and has lacked a compelling, binding story, some firmly held and widely shared self-definition, something aspirational, ever since. (Sorry, “We tend our own gardens,” good try though it is, doesn’t qualify.)
Like it or not, times have changed and social risk—both its atmosphere and its particulars—has intensified. It’s impossible to shut your eyes to this. Well, not impossible, but foolish. And saturated as our society is by communications, it’s still hard for us as a community to have a real conversation about social risk and possible responses—to identify our options, resources and social capabilities. Hard, outside the formalities of occasional municipal elections, for a community to say to itself: “Let’s go thataway!”
By way of setting an urgent context for this idea of broad social narrative and its significance, I can offer this excerpt from a recent New York Times column moist with shock and sorrow, entitled “Sadness and Disbelief From a World Missing American Leadership.” Commentator Katrin Bennhold writes: “The pandemic sweeping the globe [and the incompetence of the fumble-fingered US response] is shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism. The United States should take an urgent warning from a long line of empires that rose and fell. It’s a very familiar story in world history that after a certain amount of time a power declines. You accumulate problems, and you can carry these for a long time. Until something happens and you can’t anymore.”
True for great nations and true, in its way and at scale, even for this small city with its special genius for inertia.
Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, and writing Futurecide, a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological.
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