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  • Caution…history ahead

    Gene Miller

    Can Victoria survive its own bungling and folly?


    JAMES KUNSTLER, social critic and author, writes that “Narratives are not truths.” It’s his point that manufactured good news and progress “selfies” from government, often amplified by ideological advocates or benefitting private interests, merge with lazy social agreement and public habits of passivity or indifference to produce fictions that stand in for reality.

    Once in place, these fictions require energy to dispel or refute; exhaust critical assets and blunt activism; and frustrate common-sense understanding and response. After all, if fiction and fact—somebody’s story about reality, and reality—are simply “competing perspectives” deserving equal consideration, then reality’s compelling claim is diminished, and decisions and plans are likely to be made on shaky credentials. Current conditions can be read (and, worryingly, the future projected) in just this way.

    Yes, it’s tempting to make Trump “Exhibit A,” but let me localize Kunstler’s thinking. I live beside Beacon Hill Park and spend a lot of time tramping the park’s contoured landscape. I can attest to the more or less “tent city” numbers of homeless dispersed throughout the park, particularly in more clement seasons, and the “rush hour” of campers and floppers leaving the lawns, meadows and groves in the morning, heading, presumably, for breakfast with Reverend Al, or at Our Place, or to begin a day of…whatever.


    Some denizens, un-tempted by the breakfast commute, and inventive enough to end-run the formal terms of the City’s no-daytime-camping rule, have made more or less permanent homes in various copses, forested side-paths and corners of the park.

    City parks staff, understandably uncomfortable with the potential for direct encounter, have told me that they don’t feel completely safe in certain parts of the park, especially when working solo. I understand why they might feel that way, and I’m also sympathetic that current budgets or deployments appear not to allow for the thorough pickup of a widely scattered dumpster’s-worth of daily leave-behinds.

    The coded violence, if I can put it that way, of discarded needles and other drug gear (staggering amounts), human excrement, tossed food packaging and camping crud, clothing, cardboard ground cover, bloody bandages, shopping carts, remnant objects, and the embedded humans themselves can be found throughout. The conditions of living rough diminish the park’s painterly, paradisiacal landscapes. They change the park experience, compromise its confected arcadian design, and force guardedness in any park user with eyeballs and a brain.

    But in spite of the fact that parts of the park sometimes look and vibe like the opening scene of a zombie movie, the public, fed some mumbo-jumbo by the City about assiduous bylaw enforcement and police oversight (both, though well-intentioned, are spotty and largely ineffective), is advised it needn’t fear. And if you step in a napkin-festooned “crap sandwich” while rambling, well, that’s just part of the park experience, isn’t it?

    Whistle along with me:
        Everybody’s beautiful
        In their own way….

    The wonder in all of this is surprise from any quarter that such conditions have materialized. What did the City—what did anyone—think would happen when large numbers of people at the margins, with limited material, emotional or transactional wherewithal (along with bad habits and bad attitudes, in some cases) were charged by society with their own shelter, well-being and survival, and were treated like outsiders, symbolically and literally? Don’t they write textbooks about stuff like this?

    The park tents, sleeping bags, shopping carts, tarps and piles of camper crap, plus the homeless crashed all over Downtown’s streets do not exactly shout “civic triumph” for Victoria, city or region. But there it is, so we have to ask how did this current state of things—to be clear, I’m referring to homelessness itself, not the “cosmetic” impacts—work its way inside the porous and elastic definition of “socially acceptable” here in Victoria?

    This is not how to operate a city, especially in these times. We are at, if I can use an un-patented phrase, one of history’s corner-points: a time when both conventional social practice, and the sensibilities undergirding it, are facing assault (political, cultural, economic); and no, the new Downtown bike lanes are not a for-instance. As someone with a talent for brevity has noted: the future doesn’t come with a guarantee.

    I believe the changes coming our way—not in some tomorrowland, but soon—call for recognition and preparation, and I believe the word “survivability” nicely defines the stakes. I invite you to meditate on the state of things in 2040, when half the current jobs have been transferred to AI and robotics, the economy has been turned upside down, and a lot of people have too much free time.

    Yes, I’m a hysteric; and no, I don’t want to debate this future with you. It’s my immediate point that even leaving aside the familiar litany of legitimate hand-wringer concerns about the homeless, continued homelessness is a social failure time-bomb whose impacts are guaranteed to diminish the city’s character and identity, and these can materialize with unexpected speed. There is an exhaustive literature about cities that squander and never regain character and composure as a consequence of under-responding to some critical social problem or need and, through the very act of procrastination, unwittingly help to author its messy, hyperbolic climax. Remember the recent tent city on Burdett and Quadra? Such conditions and outcomes are corrosive; social animus is corrosive: cities lose their souls.


    VICTORIA'S APPEALING IMAGE in a jumpy world and its high marks with visitors (the money, honey) are based on its ability to convey an authentic, lovely, gentle yesteryear-tinged social health and stability, a coherent sense of urban community and continuity, a place where memory and an entire set of social principles and conventions still guide human actions. The key word above is “authentic.”

    Jennifer Senior, in a May, 2016 review of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, a book concerned with the conditions that foster social belonging, writes: “It’s not just that our personal loyalties have shrunk to a universe the size of a teacup (family, a handful of friends). It’s that we have so little regard for what’s collectively ours.” Senior’s concern is highly relevant to local identity as we nervously balance, these days, in the narrow psychic space between a large Victoria and a small Vancouver, and especially as Chamber types are braying for a one-city regionalism guaranteed to intensify placelessness, reduce and abstract cultural memory, and further hobble the skills, responsibilities and arts of localism, of community.

    Our current municipal and regional entities demonstrate a brilliant competence (I stretch a point to make a point) in future-planning when it comes to urban systems, but the local m.o. with homelessness is to wait until there’s a near-crisis, then stitch together the minimum resources necessary, altogether ensuring that we do the worst job, take the longest possible time, achieve minimum outcome, and provide maximum pain and continued social risk for everyone. All in favour?

    Maybe spending authorities believe that “current economic conditions” and “spending priorities” (phrases that should always land with a here-comes-horseshit warning flag) don’t allow for a commitment adequate to ensure the shelter of all. But we’re spending, through emergency services and other ad hoc social management responses, dollars equivalent to or greater than the costs of permanent housing; not to mention real social and reputational costs. But don’t let that cloud your judgment.

    (I pause here to express appreciation for the extraordinary efforts of the region’s many values-driven housing and social services organizations and individuals. This saintly crowd does what it can with what it’s given, and we owe them our gratitude...and a much larger budget.)

    Maybe we assume that the ubiquitous “they”—the Department of This, or the Office of That—are looking after housing and social management of the homeless: a classic example of “everywhere, elsewhere.” Maybe, in spite of fatuous Canadian chest-thumping, we are—courtesy of darkening geopolitics, worrying economy and growing social insecurity—turning, or returning, to a Dickensian playbook. Maybe, nuanced apologetics aside, we just don’t give a shit. I mean, Victoria, in spite of all efforts at camouflage, is part of a hardening world. You can feel it in the air: a strong tang of devil-take-the-hindmost.

    Ironically, we might best achieve homeless housing outcomes if there were a Department of This, adequately funded and charged with the provision and maintenance of homeless housing and services; that is, remove it from the moral landscape and just put it on the to-do list, like pothole repair.

    Identity, municipal “story,” if I can use such a term for community, is a fragile thing. We need always to be careful that what pushes us into the future doesn’t push us out of the past—which is to say, social memory.

    Historian Barbara Tuchman suggests: “Social systems can survive a good deal of folly when circumstances are historically favorable or when bungling is cushioned by large resources or absorbed by sheer size. Today, when there are no more cushions, folly is less affordable.”

    Founder of Open Space and co-founder of Monday Magazine, Gene Miller and has launched, with partner Rob Abbott, the website FUTURETENSE: Robotics, AI, and the Future of Work.

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