Why are mittens and soup so superior to affordable and social housing?


This is an addendum to my last post. Please Share.

So, in my last post I defended Ronna-Rae Leonard, NDP candidate for the riding of Courtenay-Comox, against ridiculous and scurrilous partisan attacks published in The Comox Valley Record by people clearly associated with the Liberal campaign in that riding. I wasn’t wrong in doing that, but then I thought about it again and realized there was just something not quite right about my approach because the letters to the editor by Clancy and Murray were right in a sense and I hadn’t really addressed clearly why and how they were right. During a wakeful period last night I finally put it all together and figured out what the issues really were (and are).

According to the letters to the editor by Clancy and Murray, Ronna-Rae’s failing was that she, or rather the Comox Valley Housing Task Force that she chaired, “didn’t provide one pair of mittens, bowl of soup, pair of socks or shelter for one needy or homeless person.” (this quote is from Murray’s letter in the May 4th edition of The Record). Well, that’s true. And there’s a good reason for that.

Charity does not solve the problems of homelessness and poverty. It perpetuates them. Over the last decade or so municipalities all over North America have come to realize that and have moved to an entirely different way of tackling the homelessness issue. It’s called Housing First. I’ll get back to that, but for the moment I need to address the issue of charity.

So what’s so appealing about charity? Why is charity so important to Murray? Well, to put it simply, charity is about the giver and not the receiver. According to Christian morality, a morality that’s infused in all of our culture whether we believe or not, charity is a way of buying our way into heaven or in secular terms it’s a way of making us feel better, a way of dealing with our guilt. This is all very complicated and requires a whole other blog post. For now, suffice it to say that charity by way of soup kitchens and shelters is fine because soup kitchens and shelters provide givers with a place to give and feel good about it. Affordable, supportive housing doesn’t do that at all so, for some people, it’s useless. The implication is that the poor are morally corrupt. We don’t want to provide them with too much help because they are responsible for their own misfortune. Mittens and soup are as far as we want to go in helping out.

I concluded some time ago after years of research that the solution to homelessness and a lot of its related consequences in mental illness, drug abuse and alienation lies not in charity but rather in a program called Housing First (Google it) that puts homeless residents in homes first where they can experience some security and peace and where they can work on their personal issues in safety with support from health professionals as needed. I’m sure Ronna-Rae Leonard agrees with me in this. Of course, in the Valley there is a huge shortage of affordable housing making the Housing First model difficult to implement.

The reality is that charity costs a lot of money. The Salvation Army Pidcock House is not cheap to operate and receives some public money. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time go into providing meals for the homeless at Saint George’s church. From what I know, most, if not all, Maple Pool residents receive government subsidies in the form of social assistance. It’s my understanding that the housing allowance of $375 per month they receive goes to the operators of Maple Pool. Hypothetically, if there are 50 residents in the Maple Pool campground that amounts to $18,750 per month. That’s money that essentially keeps residents in substandard, unsafe and unsanitary conditions with little in the way of support for addiction or mental health issues. I swear that if I had to live in conditions like those at Maple Pool I’d want to get drunk or stoned every day. What other means of escape are there? You tell me. The cost to the health system of dealing with the homeless is very high. We know that Housing First substantially reduces those costs.

As I noted above, one of the major problems we are experiencing these days is the fact that there is precious little affordable housing available in the Valley. It’s a crisis according to many front line social workers. Shelters and soup kitchens aren’t going to do anything to alleviate that problem. Because the market has not been able to build affordable housing, it’s up to the federal, provincial and municipal governments to step in and do it. We need all kinds of housing in the Valley, not just fancy, single family homes for the relatively well to do. We need affordable, supportive housing and we need it now. If we don’t do it, the cost to all of us will soon be overwhelming with social unrest, increasing crime and poor health taking more and more effort and money to manage.

People who advocate charity over supportive housing just haven’t thought the problem through carefully enough. Maybe it’s time to get serious about real solutions and not just perpetuate ways to allow charitable givers a vehicle to feel good and buy their way into heaven.

4 thoughts on “Why are mittens and soup so superior to affordable and social housing?

  1. I agree totally that charity is not the solution. While many of these ‘givers’ may be well intentioned and the relief may help deal with short term problems like having nothing to eat, it is in fact perpetuating the problem. It feeds off and into the self serving myth that ‘the poor will always be with us.’ Good post as usual Roger.

    1. Thanks, Brian. Of course, most people are well-intentioned, but we need to look at the bigger picture if we’re ever going to deal effectively with homelessness. I think one of the major problems we have is moral, that is, who belongs and who doesn’t belong with ‘us.’ Because the poor are demonstrable failures in our moral world, we don’t treat them as equals. It matters not how and why people get poor. Once they are poor, the story goes, it’s because they’ve made lots of bad decisions in their lives, they’re weak and useless. And, sad to say, once people become entrenched in poverty, they often become belligerent or extremely passive, more marks against them. The police dog them, politicians use them as fodder. Sometimes, I really believe that we as a species aren’t ‘sapient’ enough to even see how we relate to others and why.
      In the last two or three decades of my career I spent a lot of time reading about why we ‘other’ people, why we create enemies, sometimes with no grounds whatsoever and scapegoat them mercilessly, just as Trump is doing in the US. There’s lots of love in the world, but lots of hate too and the hate often seems to trump the love. Too bad for us.

  2. Roger, I can’t ignore any of your posts. Perhaps my view points irritate you, but the gospel message is not being understood by many. The message is that “By grace you are save, not of works, lest any man boast.” There are many verses that reiterate this sentiment.

    We all know the song Amazing Grace. That is the message in that famous hymn.

    If some professed Christians have been motivated to try to get to heaven by helping others, they are and were sorely mistaken.

    You know that I am in support of Housing First. Hand-outs are the lazy way out.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      My point was about corruption in ‘the church’ not about gospel messages. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church sold indulgences so that a person or a loved one who had died could exit purgatory in an expedient fashion. The more a person spent on indulgences, the greater their chance of getting to heaven more quickly. Now, I submit, there is no better example of corruption in the church and modern prosperity theology is just a variant on this Medieval practice. The Church in the Council of Nicea invented lots of ideas and practices that have no biblical referents but have been institutionalized into commonly accepted notions like purgatory. Churches can be as self-serving as multinational corporations.

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