Christmas is a time of giving. People ordinarily give gifts, they give their time, they share their food and their space and their love. It therefore comes as no surprise that when the holidays come around, we become swamped with requests from community organizations to provide money and non-perishable food items for those who don’t have enough to eat. Often, packages will be put together for the recipients of these goodwill gestures, containing small Christmas gifts and other necessities as well. The question is – what happens during the rest of the year?
I am reminded of the 2002 film “The Santa Clause 2,” Hunger doesn’t take a honeymoon wherein Tim Allen’s character – the beloved Santa – gets married on Christmas Eve, and then brags to his new Mrs. Claus that they will be able to take a six-month honeymoon because his work for the year is done. Spreading cheer and exhibiting the spirit of giving during the Christmas season is wonderful and should be highly commended, but in an ideal world, it would not even be necessary.
Government money is spent very generously – often too generously as some might argue. Foreign aid funding demonstrates that human caring has no borders. COVID-19 relief money helped a lot of people maintain their livelihoods when faced with job losses from the pandemic. Our roads get maintained, our government buildings get upgraded, our leaders get very healthy pensions, and medical care is freely provided to anyone who needs it. One could spend all day listing the things all levels of government spend money on. Surely, feeding the hungry would not be an unreasonably large expense, compared with so many of the other expenses deemed necessary for a functional society?
The other side of this coin is housing. Canada is facing a housing crisis, and there is simply not enough available housing for everyone who needs it. What a shocking problem. Development companies seem to be able to get entire upscale neighborhoods built very quickly. Why can’t we do the same with subsidized housing? The likely answer is that it is simply not enough of a government priority, which is not okay. The situation is reminiscent of water quality and supply issues on Indigenous reserves. Such issues would be quickly and permanently resolved if money was no object. Cost should not matter when meeting these most basic human rights – food, shelter, water – but obviously it does.
What is needed to inspire real change as far as homelessness and hunger are concerned, is a collective public and government commitment to help. Too often is poverty seen as an ugly thing to be swept away, instead of a heartbreaking problem that needs human care. An Ottawa Citizen article in May of 2021 by Kerry-Lynne Wilson shocked many of her readers after she described herself as the “ideal” Ottawa resident, and told of a typical walk through the Byward Market wherein she is left judging all those without homes. She writes about being accosted by the “mentally ill,” and in her privilege, she does not seem to understand many elements of poverty. She wonders why a man is wearing a wool coat in the heat of summer, not considering that he cannot simply throw it away and buy a new one when winter comes. She walks on after encountering a young boy shivering in a bush, believing that a few dollars will not make a difference anyway. These types of attitudes are indicative of the very culture of indifference that drives homelessness and poverty.
I recently stayed two nights in a Byward Market hotel, and did not drive anywhere the entire weekend. I took the same walks as KerryLynne, down the same streets, but with a different perspective. I know that our top priority as a society should be helping these people in whatever way they need. If there is money for some of the foolish things that governments spend money on, then surely there is money not only to feed the homeless and build them dignified, permanent housing, but also to employ social workers to take to the streets and help transition these individuals to comfort and safety.
One problem remains. First, leaders have to care.
I worked downtown with those living in poverty or precariously housed for over 20 years. I have witnessed many “new” ideas as to what the answer is to housing the homelessness. Everything from the get well, get a home approach to the housing first model. Each time these approaches failed not because they weren’t valid but because the city or the province would mandate these programs and then offer the least amount of money possible to make them work. The bottom line is homelessness, poverty, mental health and addictions are all a symptom of the overall issue – lack of affordable housing! We will never be able to address any of these societal issues until we give every individual the dignity of a safe, affordable and warm home. Like I said it has been 20 years….we have intricate and proven systems in place to move towards ending homelessness we just have no homes to put our folks. That is messed up don’t you think!??!