Friday, May 28, 2004

Homeless Deaths and Canadian Federal Politics

I intend to write an entry on the ongoing federal election campaigns in both Canada and the United States, but I have suspended work on that to respond to the comments that NDP (that's Canada's social democratic party) leader Jack Layton made about the role of Liberal (that's Canada's parallel to the Democrats, in case any U.S.-based folk ever read this) leader and then-finance minister Paul Martin has played in the deaths of homeless people.

Layton said, "Deaths due to homelessness in this city took a rapid rise immediately after Paul Martin cancelled the affordable housing program, and their names stand in testimony to the neglect that has been rained on our city."

I have been quite involved in housing and homelessnes issues. In fact, I made a rather similar point to Layton's in a radio interview done during the last federal election. A bunch of us were staging a rally outside the constituency office of a local Liberal MP during the campaign, to promote the 1% solution -- the idea that all levels of government should invest 1% of their budgets in building affordable housing. A reporter from a local radio station asked why we were targeting the Liberals in this action, since we claimed to be non-partisan. I replied something to the effect that we were targeting the Liberals because they had created the problem. Not only did they slash and download social housing programs, but they made a variety of other changes to Canada's social safety net which allowed right-wing provincial governments to implement much harser welfare regimes, made it much harder to qualify for unemployment insurance, and generally contributed to a change in the role of the state by reducing social spending as a percentage of of GDP.

Since that time, I have spent two years working for an organization doing community-based research, much of it on housing and homelessness issues. We weren't allowed to connect the dots quite as directly as Layton did in our reports, but they definitely linked the upsurge in homelessness to social policy decisions at the federal and provinical levels.

Now, it's unfair to place the blame solely on Martin's back. He was finance minister, and was therefore very powerful within the cabinet, so his choices definitely played a role in creating the situation which has led to an increase in homeless deaths. The rest of the Liberal caucus deserves a share of the blame as well, as do many if not all provincial governments (especially the Harris government in Ontario), and of course all of the institutions and forces of global neoliberalism, of which these changes in the role of the state are a part.

So I say: Go Jack Go!

(And I am not an NDP partisan, but rather someone who...well, I'll get to that general entry on federal elections soon.)

I am also intrigued both by the media coverage and the Liberal response to these comments. It is quite easy to find data, at least for Toronto and probably for a number of other cities as well, showing that Layton's accusations are factually defensible. I have not exhaustively read the mainstream press on this issue, but I have read some, and I have not yet seen use of this documentation -- essentially, I suspect, because it would support Layton. He, after all, has published a book about homelessness, which I don't necessarily agree with 100%, but which shows a broad knowledge of the subject area.

In the CBC article I read, they at least outlined some of the historical background:

"Cuts to Canada's affordable housing program were slashed by
the Progressive Conservative government in its 1993 budget, and
implemented by the Liberal government when it came to power
that fall in an effort to reduce the deficit.

"Under pressure from cities, in 2001 the federal government
committed $680 million for the affordable rental program. To
date less than half has been spent."

They also cited the number of homeless deaths in Toronto since 2001, which is interesting but hardly relevant to the point under contention on its own.

I would also add that the description of the 2001 program is not entirely accurate. It is a rental supply program, not an affordable housing program. In some provinces, it has been implemented to create actual affordable housing. In Ontario, thanks to the way the federal Liberals insisted on structuring the program and to the obstinancy of the previous provincial Tory government, it is very much about rental supply and will not do much to help people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

However, this ignores the research which shows the correlation between the restructuring of the Canadian state's role in social responsibilities in the 1990s (through both federal and provincial actions) and the increases in homelessness (and, as a consequence, homeless deaths) in urban centres. It exists, but mainstream media seem to be ignoring it.

The Canadian Press article I read on the subject was even worse. It fell into a very typical mainstream media trap by defining balance as quoting people on two sides of the issue and then not bothering to include any documented facts which might show one person was right and the other wrong. They quote Layton's accusation and Martin's denial, and leave it at that -- superficial balance at the expense of accuracy.

(Although I do like the response of NDP strategist James Heath to the Liberal indignation at Layton's remarks: "Nobody is putting blood on anybody's hands . . . Paul Martin made choices, homelessness increased and some of them died. If Paul Martin doesn't like that fact, he should have made a different choice." Refreshing directness.)

All of this relates to a larger issue that I have been thinking about a lot lately: the ways in which knowledge, which supposedly flows so freely, can stay segregated within society, or even within an individual.

For example, take the abuses at Abu Ghraib. As far as I understand it, it was fairly common knowledge in Iraq that this sort of thing was going on -- at least some people who were in U.S. custody had been released, they talked to their friends and relatives, and word spread. As even the LA Times noted in a story last week, the lack of surprise and novel outrage from Iraqi sources at the release of the magical pictures is quite telling. It was old news there. And, in fact, anyone who follows human rights and dissident sources in North America has known for ages that torture of this sort was part of U.S. operations in Guantanimo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Yet now, with the release of some of these pictures, it has become accpetable knowledge in mainstream circles in North America.

Now, I think the answer provided by Tom Engelhardt to the question of why this change happened is the best I've seen so far -- bureaucratic infighting in the U.S. government, in particular a decision by the CIA, the Pentagon, and senior moderate Republicans to go after the neocons, has made it acceptable fare for mainstream media in the U.S., which historically limits the range of dissent it treats seriously to that offered by the Democrats (currently next to nill) or that demonstrated by differences within the state bureaucracy.

But what amazes me (despite how common it is) is that millions of people in Iraq treated this as part of their commonsense reality, yet to most people in North America, if you had suggested this was going on prior to the release of those photos, you would have been treated as a nutty leftist or an al-Qaeda supporter, even if you brought the documentation that existed at the time.

Returning to the issue of homelessness, it is this ability to count on knowledge being segregated within society that has allowed much of the worst right-wing rhetoric in Canada to be politically viable over the last decade. The bread and butter of the Harris Tories in their Ontario election victories, particularly the first one, was poor-bashing. They got away with it because most middle-class Ontarians know little or nothing about the lives of poor Ontarians, so if some classist bigot tells them they have been duped into paying for lots of welfare fraud and all the other baloney that goes with that line, they have no basis of their own to reject it.

It is important to highlite the role of privilege in this active rejection of or at least teflon-like passive ability to shed any awareness of the realities of people who are oppressed in the face of lots of available information. Privilege, whether it is class privilege or white skin privilege or male gender privilege, makes itself hard to see, so you can just sit back and enjoy the privilege without dealing with the fact that you are enjoying it because others are oppressed.

In this case, the Liberal strategists who are responding with righteous indignation at what they are characterizing as a personal attack are counting on the same thing. They are counting on the fact that middle-class voters, and even many working-class voters, are ignorant of the realities of homelessness in Canada, how it went from problem to crisis to disaster, and how it is experienced by real people. The sad part is, this may work.

However, it may not -- I don't have a sense of whether this was a deliberate ploy by Layton or something he said off-the-cuff because it is a part of his commonsense, as someone who has dealt with homelessness issues for a long time, but I think working in his favour is the fact that a lot of money, including effort and money from this Liberal government, has gone into raising awareness about homelessness in Canada's urban centres. The Liberals have done pretty much nothing to deal with the root causes of the homelessness crisis they created, but perhaps some of the inadequate shut-the-agencies-and-activists-up dollars that they put into public awareness-raising on the issue will actually have done some good, and significant numbers of citizens will sense the truth in Layton's words.

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