Monday, September 27, 2004

Privatizing CHAN

I saw this on an email list and it occurred to me to comment, but I was too busy at the time and then forgot. Then a friend in Hamilton emailed it too me again the other day, and I couldn't resist.

The article is one in a regular series of updates about municipal issues produced by a group called CATCH, an acronym for Citizens At City Hall. The first paragraph gives the essence of this particular update:

A community agency that has coordinated access to social housing for the last seven years has been dumped by the city in favour of a private company with links to local politicians. The Community Housing Access Network (CHAN) was faxed information on Tuesday that it is being replaced by Fengate Property Management, despite wide agreement that CHAN has been doing a good job.


The rest of the article goes on to point out the support that CHAN has in the community, and the fact that Fengate was a major contributor to campaigns of various local politicians. I agree that the process sounds fishy, and in general I would favour a co-operatively structured, not-for-profit way of addressing a social need over a private, for-profit one. I certainly see no reason why Fengate would do a better job than CHAN.

But I think where CATCH and other defenders of public services in Hamilton (and more generally) need to be careful is the last phrase of that paragraph: "despite wide agreement that CHAN has been doing a good job." I think that phrase shows a great deal of selectivity in terms of whose opinions are being considered. The housing providers think CHAN is doing okay. A lot of the other social service agencies don't have a whole lot bad to say. But I would be very surprised if you found a majority of people who have had to use CHAN's services who said the same thing. I base this suggestion on having spent some time in the CHAN front office and observing interactions between staff and those using the service, and also on things I have heard from people who have used the service.

I think the root causes of this dissatisfaction are much broader than issues of CHAN's structure or of its staff's conduct, though I have heard complaints about both. Rather, a lot of it comes from the fact that there is such a woefully inadequate amount of social housing in Hamilton, so waiting lists are disgustingly long -- not getting what they need will frustrate people and some of that will be directed towards CHAN, which manages the waiting list, even if that isn't a particularly appropriate target. And it can't be easy for CHAN workers to spend so much of their time telling people in need that they are not yet able to get that which they need.

As well, that very role played by CHAN is offensive: Its job is to interface between real people with urgent and complex needs and a bureaucratic system over which those people have no power whatsoever, either as individuals or as a class. The compulsion to fit into arbitrary bureaucratic systems which are not flexible and which care more about their own rules than about people is a fundamental feature of the lives of people living in extreme poverty in developed countries -- answering to a social worker here, a social worker there, a housing access clerk somewhere else, a welfare clerk in yet another location, when all of these professionals must (on pain of losing their jobs) be first and foremost concerned with filling out the right forms and making sure all proper process is observed, and who don't have the power to address the barriers that their "clients" are facing to a healthy and happy and stable life anyway.

Turning the management over to the private sector will not, of course, address any of this. If anything, it will make the management even harsher and less transparent. I support the basic call to keep this activity out of the private sector. But what does it say about our movements for supposed social justice if we do not ground what we say and do in the experiences of those on the receiving end of injustice? In this case, that would mean showing a willingness to complexify the liberal/social democratic narrative of "noble public service being thrown to the private sector wolves" by including in some way real criticisms of the system as it exists grounded in the experiences of those with less power.

This isn't some abstract concern with political correctness, either -- movements for social justice are not going to gain significant ground without mobilization of and buy-in by poor and working-class people, particularly women and men of colour and white women. Social welfare systems as they currently exist need to be defended from further degradation of their ability to meet basic needs, but we can't lose sight of the fact that, at the same time, they are basically oppressive systems whose purpose is to ensure that the larger oppressive system in which they are embedded can continue to function. And this is becoming ever more true as states are transformed on the neoliberal model.

2 comments:

Chris Shannon said...

I'm currently struggling with this problem, as a worker in a "neurotic system" although in a different context, education. Although I see the school system as primarily a social service agency.

Specifically I work with "...people with urgent and complex needs..." and force them to conform to "...the bureaucratic system over which those people have no power whatsoever, either as individuals or as a class..." except in this case it is with children. The system that I work under is the Ontario Ministry of Education, whose presence I can literally feel even at carpet time in a grade 2 classroom.

Ontario's education is standardized, you'll get the same thing from Winsor to Thunder Bay. You can imagine the problems this may cause for diverse needs community to community, never mind within classes, or with special needs children with whom I work.

This of course would not be a problem for me if there wasn't the ever overhanging possibility of the "...pain of losing (my) (job)..."

The same "...liberal/social democratic narrative of "noble public service being thrown to the private sector wolves"..." is going on in Ontario education right now. Our Premier, supported by the liberal media, is being championed as "The Education Premier". He is being held up as the person who brought Ontario's education back from the brink of neo-conservative attack.

In reality he is just holding the wolves at bay, while occasionally throwing scraps to programs like special education. Autism should be specifically noted. The Premier was roundly praised for new money provided to work with autistic children. It was a paltry sum considering the money needed to work with these kids. Lawsuits brought on behalf of autistic children's parents are still pending.

The most important point in your article "we can't lose sight of the fact that, at the same time, they are basically oppressive systems whose purpose is to ensure that the larger oppressive system in which they are embedded can continue to function. And this is becoming ever more true as states are transformed on the neoliberal model." needs to be remembered.

Perhaps we focus too much on school fundraisers, and not enough on nameless, unelected, international organizations. That would be an interesting topic for carpet time.

Chris Shannon said...

Excuse the above comment spell check error. Please read "neurotic system" as "bureaucratic system" Hmmm perhaps that was a Freudian slip.