Last December, the controversial Rev. Ric Matthews resigned from the First United Church, citing the clash between official safety requirements and the overflow of Vancouver homeless seeking shelter. The very same day, The City of Vancouver, Reliance Properties, and ITC Construction Group rolled out their 230-square-foot “microloft” apartments, pitching the $850 a month rentals as “an affordable and much needed non-subsidized rental housing opportunity in downtown Vancouver.”
It’s no surprise the grand opening was met with protest. These snazzy Tombs With a View did little to address the parallel problems of poverty and housing affordability in Vancouver. They were a bit like offering a starving person some itsy-bitsy foodie morsels with an Urban Fare price tag. (The Woodwards development in the same area, with its mix of social and market housing, stands out for being an exception.)
A friend recently wrote me an email about the “great moral shame about people in poverty in Canada.” He feels we all need to ask the most basic question: “why?” Not why are “they” struggling every day, but why do we accept things as they are? He wrote: “Why do we accept that the waitress who just brought us lunch needs a church’s food pantry to feed her daughter for the rest of the month? She’s working and that should be enough. Why do we accept the family living in their car, the mentally ill and the addicts who die on our streets, and the children who go to school tired and hungry? Maybe we accept things as they are because poverty has always been with us and we think nothing will change. Or maybe we accept things as they are because it’s so easy to look away. Are the two intimately linked? Are our feelings of powerlessness linked with our indifference?”
I prefer to think our sense of powerlessness is linked more to “compassion fatigue” than indifference. There is also an impulse to blame the victim—to lump in the mentally ill and substance abusers with those who have failed, for whatever reasons, to successfully “compete” in the market. The spiralling real estate values on the West Coast can’t be pegged on the B.C. Liberal government. But when our leaders say they can’t sustain a previous generation’s expectations for health care, housing and education, what they don’t tell you is that they slashed corporate income taxes to 10 per cent from 16.5 per cent in 2001. This, and along with the Liberals’ other tax cuts, have helped choked off their revenue stream. Like their Tory brethren in Ottawa, the provincial Liberal government keeps telling us that big government doesn’t work—and damned if they haven’t gone and proven it.
Perhaps the big home with the two-car garage is going the way of the hula hoop and automotive tailfins. Personally, I have no problem with the last generation of SUVs and Hummers rusting away in driveways, as laneway homes spread like rhizome from Mount Pleasant to Marpole. That being said, this city, this province, and this nation is awash in capital. It’s just that our investment models are embedded in free market fundamentalism. Communities with strong social funding networks actually produce significant economic spinoffs. Scandinavian nations consistently perform at the top for global economic competitiveness, while supporting strong public sectors. Why can’t we?
I could go on about the decades-long dynamic between poverty and plutocracy, yet noble-sounding words in newsprint aren’t of much use to someone desperately seeking shelter in our “world class city.” Whether they are a 9 to 5 wage slave or a single mother and her kid, the only thing they have the energy to investigate is a church bulletin board, or Craigslist, for a place to rest their heads.
Neither do I have a good answer to my friend’s question about why we shrug at the day-to-day shame of poverty in this province, and accept the highest child poverty rate in Canada. What I can say is we need to stop reelecting politicians who say they represent the struggling many, when they have proven over and over that their true allegiance is to the prosperous few.
Or we can all sit back and just trust the market to weave its long-deferred magic on us all. After all, didn’t those hip microlofts rent out in a matter of hours?