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  • Oh, give me a home

    Gene Miller

    Providing homes to those in need can be viewed as revolution insurance.


    ON AN OVERCAST SPRING MORNING, around six, driving down Pandora to make a left on Quadra, headed to Beacon Hill Park, I hear screaming and see a contorted figure in the parking lot in front of Cumberbirch Insurance on the northwest corner of Quadra and Pandora. Pants down around his knees, he’s shouting incomprehensibly, ritually crazy-bobbing like a drunken boxer, and punching his naked thighs in a mad tattoo. Bad drugs? Bad brains? Bad luck? Who knows?

    Still-closed store entrances all over Downtown are sheltering the homeless under plastic tarps, sleeping bags or layers of clothing. Beacon Hill Park is dotted with an ever-growing number of semi-permanent tents and improv cardboard mattresses under park structures and trees.



    Tent City beside Victoria Courthouse, 2015-2016


    This is a condition that affects Victoria’s entire social ecology. It sickens the spirit and consciousness, and no one, however geographically or experientially removed, is untouched. The semi-official, my-eyes-are-closed-I-can’t-see-you default strategy of locational containment on “misery street” around Our Place on Pandora is merely notional, a limited “success” as demonstrated by Downtown-and-shoulder-area-wide visibility and impacts.

    It’s a flawed reading of priorities that the City of Victoria is presently effervescing about a $70-million Crystal Pool replacement, instead of a homeless response (i.e. housing), especially while almost all the other municipalities are doing their famous imitation of someone whistling past the graveyard.

    But, you say, isn’t homeless housing and services a provincial or federal, not local, responsibility? Right. Memo to the homeless: “Housing and services are provincial concerns, so please be homeless in, uh, Sandspit, Fort St John, Williams Lake and other, uh, provincial places. Buses are standing by.”

    Every time you drive by a tent in the park, or pass a shopping-cart-pusher or a street-corner panhandler, or spot a clutch of homeless in some alley or vacant lot, let it trigger this thought: providing homeless housing isn’t some lefty handwringer conceit, it’s revolution insurance.

    I mean, can’t you feel the features and qualities of the near-future under construction now? Even leaving aside climate suicide, sure to trigger social collapse and vast, desperate human migrations, simply consider some likely economic judder that will loosen the grip of a sizable multitude that is just hanging on—or the accelerating theft of human work and purpose by technology, which is likely to significantly shred the tissue-thin membrane between the gainfully employed/socially purposeful and those who wake up with nothing to do, nothing to lose.

    In a January 2017 Smithsonian Magazine piece about AI, robotics and human work, Clive Thompson writes that “…fully 47 percent of all US jobs will be automated in a decade or two…That’s because artificial intelligence and robotics are becoming so good that nearly any routine task could soon be automated. Robots and AI are already whisking products around Amazon’s huge shipping centers, diagnosing lung cancer more accurately than humans and writing sports stories for newspapers. They’re even replacing cabdrivers, and Uber’s ‘Otto’ program is installing AI in 16-wheeler trucks—a trend that could eventually replace most or all 1.7 million truck drivers, an enormous employment category. Those jobless truckers will be joined by millions more telemarketers, insurance underwriters, tax preparers and library technicians…”

    Sobering information, given the generally unchallenged conceit that whole new employment categories will open up. You know, llama-grooming and such.

    Pankaj Mishra, in an incendiary new book, Age of Anger, discusses “cosmopolitan liberalism” and the West’s undeliverable promises of universal and never-ending social improvability—a delusional social ideology, really, that we still live by. He goes on to name its counter-gesture: “the revolutionist who has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose—to destroy it.” The conditions of poverty and homelessness in Victoria are, if unwittingly, that revolutionist, however quiescent and manageable things seem at the moment.

    “History” and “progress” are not synonymous, though it’s easy to conflate the two, raised, as we all are, on an unquestioned belief in personal and social improvability. Mishra writes, “Societies organized for the interplay of individual self-interest can collapse into manic tribalism, if not nihilistic violence.” That is, history’s arc can bend back upon itself in a second.

    None of this is meant to ascribe violent intention to the homeless, but to highlight the inherent violence of opposites and the natural tension between them. You’re housed, and the homeless are your enemy, as poverty is the enemy of wealth, the helpless the enemy of the powerful, the incompetent the enemy of the skilled and successful.

    New York Times columnist David Brooks writes: “For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work. That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity.”

    Let’s acknowledge that security—the sweet pleasures of normalcy, the lovely ordinariness we currently enjoy—is illusory, never more than temporary and always vulnerable to change in a heartbeat. The reflex desire we all share to distance ourselves and our community from risk, to preserve social calm, should, in my view, be reason enough to house the homeless. It’s called precaution, and it offsets a ton of risk.

    The noise of life makes it hard to sense the raw tide of feeling roiling beneath the everyday, but those currents are ever-present. We’re good at managing such contradictions. We yak about housing with friends, not as shelter but as real estate: rising property values, what the place up the street sold for, the pros and cons of putting in a basement revenue suite. Instead, you have to locate and give a voice to the more elemental human creature in you, to release to yourself the story about how you shelter, your roots and role in a community, your prospects for survival, tenure and well-being in a very risky and threatening world. That’s the “place” from which you respond to the homeless problem.

    Mishra writes about North America’s hallucinatory “short post-World War II history of unrepeatable success” which “spreads unlimited optimism, denigrates the past, and encourages the triumphalist belief that history has resolved its contradictions and ended its struggles in the regime of free-market individualism.”

    Resolved its contradictions? Ended its struggles? Who could miss the terror and anger and desperation underlying the outcome of the recent US presidential election? Do you think Trump was elected by happy people? In fact, things, systems, are degrading globally. The world, I predict with regret, appears ready to re-enter a more conflicted and violent phase, and Canada, in spite of its skills at camouflage and irrelevance, will not come out of it un-impacted.

    Hopes and plans based on common purpose and cooperation have clearly hit their limit. We are in a time when community solidarities have broken down, leaving enormous masses of atomized individuals. Invoking the abstracting influences of today’s placeless electronic culture, Martin Segger, art historian, UVic academic and former Victoria city councillor, provocatively claims: “Physical citizenship is defunct, dead, finished.”

    Nonetheless, Victoria endures, very much as a place of physical citizenship. Words like “charming,” or “cute,” or “a bit of England” simply disguise the real genius and deep tug of this place: Victoria is socially legible. You can read the visible code of its social intentions, its human dreams, in the love of landscape, the coherent built form, the localism of its neighbourhoods, the well-ordered, well-mannered public realm. This legibility is rare and precious, worth preserving at all costs. Providing shelter for the homeless should, perhaps, be considered as one of the “burdens of solidarity,” to borrow Bruno Latour’s phrase.

    Last year’s tent city, on the lawn behind the courthouse, was just a local warning shot, a threatening and worrying taste of how social ruin looks. It put a dent in our psyche, and the Province grudgingly coughed up just enough go-away housing money to disperse the crowd.

    Is Victoria to do nothing to prepare for any of this, its next wave or expression? Mightn’t it be good practice (leave aside good values) for us to stop pretending we can externalize our problems, and instead put our social capacities to the test by housing the homeless?

    Let’s say there are an estimated 1500 homeless regionally. Other nose-counters may claim a different number, but if we’re not at or over fifteen hundred, we will be soon—guaranteed by spreading drug addiction, the rapid rise in the local costs of land and market housing, the accelerating loss of low-wage and other jobs to robotics and AI, and other novel, emergent forms of social threat.

    The cost of housing such a number? A capital cost of around $150 million for land and construction plus, at a guess, health care, nutrition, social management, training, property management, and other services at $10,000 per person per year, or $15 million annually. Assuming various “gets” from the feds and the province, on both the capital and operating sides, the whole thing could be successfully managed within the financial means of the region and its member municipalities.

    Yes, the homeless are often filthy, unlucky, skill-less and failed, physically and mentally ill, prone to violence, drug- or booze-addicted, uneducable, lacking in social utility. On it goes. So, let’s leave them on the streets. Let’s be close-fisted with shelter, services, care and social management. Just to teach ’em.

    As history has repeatedly demonstrated, that always works out well.

    Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept, and, with partner Rob Abbott, has launched the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.

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