1. The Real Problem of Homelessness
While we tend to see homelessness as an economic problem, it is an ethical and spiritual problem long before it is an economic problem. It is a problem of how we see, and treat, one another, as human beings and fellow citizens of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and the World.
The simple truth is that we all have same basic human needs -- food, shelter, clothing, health, community, meaning, etc. If we don’t eat, we die. If we don’t have shelter (at least here in Canada), we die (particularly in the winter). But even if we don’t die, we have health problems. Former Senator Michael Kirby, now the Chair of Mental Health Commission of Canada, speaking in Vancouver recently, said that up to 50 per cent of the homeless have mental health problems. (That simply confirms what I have known since the 1970s.) I know that these include low social skills, which make these people “hard to house” (to quote one person who had worked with them a lot). Add to that the physical health problems such people experience, in common with all people living in poverty, and the human burden mounts rapidly. These health problems are well-documented, even in Saskatoon.
2. The Real Problem of “The Market”
We need to remember that the faceless phantom called “the market” is of limited value in solving spiritual and ethical problems, which underly the economic problems.
The saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boat.” Which is true; but it is meaningless, if you cannot afford a boat.
“The Phantom of the Market” takes no account of -- indeed, ignores -- those who cannot “play “ in the market; those who are economically, physically, or emotionally disadvantaged and marginalized. Simply put, “The Market” does not know how to deal with basic human needs, except in terms of money, as opposed to terms of humanity. "The Phantom" deals with everything on the basis of supply and demand; those who cannot meet the demands of the market are simply cast aside. Or to put it in the most direct terms, if you don’t have the money to pay what a landlord is demanding, you don’t have a place to live. And when the supply of housing is short, and thus “in demand,” (as it is now), those who control the supply (i.e., the landlords) will raise their prices to “whatever the market can bear” -- when there are many who do not have the resources to reach “whatever the market can bear.”
For example, a single worker in Saskatoon earning the minimum wage of $8.60 per hour, earns about $1,500.00 per month before taxes. Given that the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) says people can reasonably afford to spend about 30% of their income on housing, this single worker can afford an apartment whose monthly rental would be about $450.00
If we are going to house people who cannot afford “boats” we need to look at solutions which work for all people.
We need in Saskatchewan, in Canada, an effective national housing policy, which will provide a robust stock of housing available to people at all income levels. “The Market” will look after those who have money; we need something else which care for and serve those who do not have the money which "The Market" demands.
This means “affordable housing” for all people. In a recent conversation with an official of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, she expressed to me CMHC’s concern that not only low-income people (i.e., people the low-income cut off, or LICO that Statistics Canada notes) but middle income people as well, are having problems finding suitable housing in Saskatoon (and other places). Another representative of CMHC warned Saskatoon City Council recently that unless a city has a good supply of apartment housing, it cannot expect to attract new people to the community. (This, at a time when City Council is allowing so may apartments to be turned into condominia, thereby creating a shortage of apartments, and inflating the rents for apartments.)
There are all kinds of models available for the building of housing -- publicly funded housing -- funded jointly by federal and provincial governments. I personally favour a co-operative kind of housing, where the ongoing decisions are made by tenants, staff, and government representatives (since the government is “footing the bill” for building such housing), working together. Nonetheless, the money for the construction of such buildings can only be provided by governments, since "the private sector" will claim (with some justification) that it cannot make enough money on "low income housing" since tenants cannot afford the rents which private-sector landlords would want to charge.
To simply rely on "The Phantom of the Market" to meet the housing needs of citizens with low incomes has not worked, is not working, and will not work in the future. We need intervention on the part of the whole community (represented in this case by the federal and provincial governments) if we are to find appropriate solutions to the needs of many citizens, including low-income and moderate-income citizens. But we also need direct citizen engagement, too!