No political will to end this crisis

Posted on March 10, 2008 in Debates, Governance Debates – comment – No political will to end this crisis
March 10, 2008
Carol Goar

The early shock and disbelief have faded. A demoralizing inertia has set in.

Hoping to re-energize Canadians, New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton has just issued an updated edition of his millennial book, Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis. The new version is called Homelessness: How to End the National Crisis.

Layton wrote the original as a Toronto city councillor and president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. It charted an alarming new trend: the rise of mass homelessness in Canada. But it ended on a note of hope. Community groups were mobilizing, big-city mayors were speaking out, citizens were opening church basements, distributing sleeping bags and telling their political leaders this wasn’t the kind of Canada they wanted to live in.

He wrote the sequel as leader of the NDP. The momentum had petered out. City dwellers had become inured to picking their way around sleeping bags at night. Four to five families were crammed into a substandard house in northern communities. Volunteers and community activists were wondering what – if anything – they could do to turn the tide. Once again, Layton ended the book on an upbeat note. But this time, it was rooted in faith, not facts. “I’m more convinced than ever that we can end this crisis,” he wrote. “I’m more convinced than ever that we must do so.”

The $20 book is worth the price. It is the most comprehensive analysis available of the shortage of affordable housing in Canada. It is rigorously researched and written in everyday language. It gives readers a street-level glimpse of homelessness and provides them with up-to-date statistics.

Homelessness also shows a side of Layton that Canadians seldom see. His facility with a pithy quote masks his sophisticated understanding of social issues. His aggressive partisanship obscures his deep and personal concern for those in need. His tendency to grandstand belies his genuine knowledge of the holes in Canada’s safety nets.

What’s missing from Layton’s book, unfortunately, is a credible plan to end homelessness.

He identifies some of the pieces of such a strategy:

* He highlights dozens of initiatives that are working at the local level.
* He enumerates the legal and institutional tools available to Ottawa to act.
* He proposes the creation of an arm’s-length foundation, financed by Ottawa and supplemented by the provinces, to provide capital grants to new housing projects, provided the landlord agrees to keep rents below market rates.
* He describes the lobbying tactics that worked when Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin headed the government.
* He offers tips to municipalities seeking ways to alleviate the shelter shortage.
* And he urges Canadians to lobby their elected officials – by phone, email, letters and public advocacy – while working on the front lines to support people who can’t afford shelter.

But none of this gets to the heart of the problem: a lack of political will.

Homelessness simply isn’t a priority for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Even if he did see a role for government in ensuring that Canadians have access to decent accommodation, he would deflect it as a provincial responsibility.

So would Opposition Leader Stéphane Dion, who is much more of a provincialist than his Liberal predecessors.

When neither the governing party nor the official Opposition is prepared to show leadership on this issue, it is unlikely that letter-writing, local creativity or citizen activism is going to make much difference.

When eight years of tax cuts – enacted by both the Tories and Liberals – have drained Ottawa’s once-bulging coffers, it is almost academic whether the federal government has the tools to tackle homelessness, poverty and a slowing economy.

Layton admits the outlook is bleak at the moment. But he reminds readers that Canada has the world’s eighth-largest economy and a long tradition of social solidarity.

Finally, he hearkens back to the words of NDP founder Tommy Douglas: “Courage my friends, ’tis never too late to make a better world.”

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