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    Gimme shelter


    Gene Miller

    Scenes of homelessness challenge any illusion that our city is well-ordered—and call for a new blueprint for community.

     

    I DON’T WANT TO BREAK A SWEAT attempting to conflate hope and home, but it’s hard not to notice that they share three-quarters of their architecture. 

    I know: you’re sorely tempted to note, so do hole, hone, hose and hove.

    Remember when you had that stupid idea to create dinner-flavoured ice cream (I recall you said pork chops and Brussels sprouts would “go monster”)? I kept my mouth clamped shut, even when everybody suggested you might, for a change, want to start receiving your mail on Planet Earth.

    So, like, work with me now, okay? Hope, home.

    Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog made the news down here this past December suggesting that for some of the street population—the mentally ill and the thoroughly (I won’t write “hopelessly”) addicted—housing was less the appropriate response than institutionalization and some updated package of professional health management.

    Predictably, he caught shit for this from the handwringer contingent that, in its opposition, invoked horrific, Dickensian images of turreted insane asylums and the baying of the hounds.

    Me? I dunno. I’ve been around too long to have much faith that the rhetoric of perfect solutions bears any relationship to our (diminishing) ability to successfully manage social outcomes. The reasons for my doubts follow later in this column. But, despite those doubts, I cannot heap enough praise on everyone associated with Our Place and other places of protection who, daily, practice hope/home in every way possible.

    I recall a recent 5am coffee run to McDonalds at Pandora and Vancouver. En route, I spotted a lump—a garbage or duffel bag—on the far sidewalk, across Pandora from the restaurant. As I made the turn, the image resolved in my headlights: a man, hunched over into the smallest possible volume, his bare toes, knees and forehead in contact with the cold pavement, a crutch or cane beside him. He remained there, still as sculpture. He might have been lost in the intensities of Islamic prayer; he could have been dead.

     

    910916113_HomelessmanonPandora.thumb.jpg.86b18e02f377263f5e20cb301bd8581d.jpg

    Homeless man on Pandora Avenue

     

    Victoria, we are producing—not allowing or enabling, but authoring—a new normal: the every night/overnight tent city in front of Our Place on Pandora, the ever-proliferating camperati in Beacon Hill and other city parks, the Downtown doorway crashers, the cardboard real estate everywhere, the tarp-covered shopping cart third-world-ification of the city’s sidewalks. I’m less interested in individual whats and whys than I am concerned about the social messaging and emotional impacts on the community-at-large, whose failure to more constructively manage this entire human tragedy is reinforced daily, as we disappear ever further into our individual electronic privacies. If you hit the right street at the worst time, the scene effortlessly conveys the atmospherics of one of sci-fi author William Gibson’s terrifying and apocalyptic futurologies.

    Welcome to Downtown Victoria 2020—real scenes that challenge any illusion that our community is well-ordered, socially coherent, or a place of practiced comfort and safety. When you have a public that effectively says “they’re homeless, so fuck ’em,” you court—no, you may count on—overall “fuck it” city life; and, owing to some strange social alchemy, all of us rendered separate human atoms, outsiders.

    Headlines gathered from the December 30, 2019 Times Colonist front page: “Police release video of stabbing attack;” “Man being sought by Victoria police after attempted kidnapping;” “Police look for men who broke into Oak Bay liquor store;” “Security guard stabbed after confronting suspected shoplifter.” And with bright promise for the new year, the January 3rd paper added, “One man arrested after fight with weapons in Centennial Square.”

    Just what brought and keeps you here, yes?

    Community, to the extent the word speaks to public life, realm, and assets, is not an afterthought and it cannot, beyond a certain point, be offloaded to City departments. Community begins with co: together, shared, us, everybody, mutuality, reciprocity. And big shock: community takes work, time, purpose and structure. Community has to be behaviour, about something; otherwise, it’s not community, only a cultural conceit, social lipstick, starry-eyed blab, an artifact.

    Columnist Nicholas Kristof and colleague Sheryl WuDunn recently penned a painful-to-read New York Times piece entitled “Who Killed the Knapp Family?” It chronicles five adult Knapp siblings, born and raised in rural Yamhill, southwest of Portland, Oregon, all but one of whom died from drugs, alcohol and similar misadventures and excesses (the surviving fifth served a long jail term). As Kristof and WuDunn make all too clear, the Knapps were victims of social and economic despair. Yamhill, the writers assert, is everywhere now—a condition incorporating addiction, lack of work, lack of a social safety net, lack of purpose, lack of exit. Suicides, note the authors, “are at their highest rate since World War II; one child in seven is living with a parent suffering from substance abuse; a baby is born every 15 minutes after prenatal exposure to opioids.”

    “We have deep structural problems half a century in the making,” they finish.

    Build the wall, Justin!—but no, too late: the same conditions that increasingly colour the American social and political landscape easily penetrate the Canadian membrane. While we do social management better here (health care, notably), we still have our own fish to fry, and our own talent for us-and-them identity politics.

    Don Evans, recently retired CEO of Our Place, has written of his own shock at the scale of the homeless. He cites poverty and its consequences as an obvious factor, but worriedly notes other constituencies that “we never imagined would end up on the street: neglected youth, injured workers, abused women, and people suffering from brain injuries and mental health issues that can strike anyone, at any income level, at any time.”

    We’re living in bad-dream times, a spreading hallucinatory condition that intrudes on the everyday, the customary, with ever-greater presence, a revolution not just of perception, but meaning and connection.

    With surprising suddenness, it’s a challenge to stand firm, to identify fixed points, to know exactly where the solid ground and the corners are. Take away even some of the “common”—shared experience, practice, sense of purpose and reinforcing protocols—and you no longer have community, just people shuffling around the same postal code.

    Look, “resilient” was only ever “fragile-with-prayer.” Things are breaking— conventional social behaviour, the terms of safety and security. Various economic and cultural certainties are diminishing, wobbling, and life is soon to be more…well, different. And when AI /robotics take all the jobs…?

    Imagine, however novelistically, a spooky, not-too-distant future Downtown filled with half-empty apartment towers and long stretches of shuttered shops, victims of online commerce, unsupportable costs, and vanished shopper appetite; the streets witness to an increasing Calcutta of shopping-cart homeless, bolstered by untold numbers living in their parked cars—not because the wife threw them out, but because life threw them out. Lots of car-campers here now, by the way, if you know where to look besides Dallas Road.

    History—our two- maybe three-generation experience of comfort and certainty—is rolling up, suicidally jumping into some dark void, trailingly calling bye-bye. Terrifying! You don’t like that idea? You don’t like any of this? What are you going to do about it? Not a taunt, but an honest question: what are you going to do about it?

    You want to understand Victoria’s continuing and remaining appeal—so precious, so rare, and so at risk? It’s not that the city is still “cute” or “charming” (the recent and continuing rash of tombstone high-rises has put paid to that), but that the social messaging conveyed by still-orderly residential streets in the close-in neighbourhoods, and a few isolated islands Downtown (LoJo for example) suggest Victoria still offers social redemption and is not (yet) a zombie stage set like many other overtaken places. There are in Victoria still places of beauty, proportion and memory, places of comprehensible social narrative—streets, blocks, neighbourhoods—that calm the soul and that promise protection and continuity.

    These places are community’s physical expression: they project connection, and silently rebuke us for the wider social inheritance we’ve squandered or misplaced.

    The message—hell, it’s a shout—to our still-reasonably-healthy, still-promising city society, better equipped than most to survive (the worst of) the future, is that these are times for the hard work of community renewal. Indifference and passivity have revealed their limits and generated predictable consequences, including the tragic streetscape of the homeless. Now it’s time for a movement, a new activist programme, a new blueprint for community, to reconnect the city to—to re-express the city as—the all of us.

    The hopeful news? Again, social alchemy. Merely convening to restore community creates new community.

    Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept. 

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