Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Canadians Have Caught On

I've found a new hero in Canadian "street nurse" Cathy Crowe. This longtime health professional and homeless advocate worries that Philip Mangano has been spending too much time in Canada spreading the gospel of Housing First for the "chronic homeless" and public/private partnerships such as Project Connect.

Crowe totally has Mangano's number. Which doesn't mean Canadian politicians and human service bureaucrats won't be just as enamored of the corporate-friendly Ten Year Plan strategy to end homelessness as their technocratic brethren to the South. It just means that Canada still has homeless advocates who are willing to question the government.

And if our government isn't questionable, I don't know whose is.

Crowe describes Mangano's Canadian Ten Year Plan road show as promoting a punitive approach to homelessness that is hostile to emergency services and focused on victim-blaming approaches that offer cosmetic change while doing nothing to address root causes of homelessness.

Michael Shapcott and I had a chance to hear Mr Mangano in Calgary earlier in May. He really is a remarkable speaker — you could almost say evangelical — preaching the issues of health, economics and the social evils of homelessness. The trouble is that the American approach is obviously not working. It's a game of smoke and mirrors. So why on earth are our municipal and national leaders looking to the United States for solutions on homelessness?

As Michael Shapcott explains: "So, what's wrong with this picture? While Mangano has been piling up frequent flier points visiting every part of the US to convince state and local governments that they need to take up the responsibility for a "housing first" policy for the homeless, his political boss — President Bush — has been gutting the US federal government's funding for housing. This year alone, there are massive cuts to seniors' supportive housing and disabled housing funding. The US federal housing program for people with AIDS will help about 67,000 people this year — yet an estimated 500,000 people living with HIV / AIDS desperately need housing help.

The problem is so bad that even the rather staid Joint Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University has proclaimed in its latest annual State of the Nation's Housing that affordable housing and homelessness have reached their worst levels ever, and funding cuts by the federal government are the chief culprit.

Crowe points out that homeless people in cities across America are under attack from law enforcement approaches that target sitting and sleeping in public, feeding people, using parks, panhandling, and other public activities to create an urban environment that is hostile to the visible poor, and says that Canada is beginning to catch America's cold.

In Canada it's the same thing. We are witnessing an almost fetishized emphasis on research, including street counts and investigations into panhandlers' needs, new by-laws against panhandling and by-laws restricting where homeless people can sleep, reduction of funding to programs that do outreach to people who are homeless, and a withdrawal of funding for emergency day and night shelters. Toronto alone has lost over 300 shelter beds just this past winter and it continues to rely on its Streets to Homes program as an answer to visible street homelessness. There are many reports that people who are housed through this program suffer greatly from hunger and isolation and remain at great risk of becoming or do become homeless again.

As we struggle to come to grips with homeless policy in America and break the USICH's growing hegemony over the issue of homelessness, maybe we need to keep a better eye on Canada. They're certainly looking out for us.

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