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"Oh no, the homeless people are coming!"

By Barton Wong
web posted July 23, 2001

The Problem

On Thursday, I got the following notice in the mail. I'll try to re-create it as best I can:






Being an adolescent, I am very easily amused, and for some reason, I found the above flyer absolutely hysterical. It was like reading a notice from the 1950s informing me that "The Ruskies are coming!" and that I better check for Reds under the bed every night before I go to sleep (those commies could be lurking anywhere, you know). Maybe it was the all-bold, all-underlined, all-capitalized lettering, the paranoid, screaming-in-your-face tone, or just the description of the shelter as a "mega" homeless shelter as if it was some sort of gigantic Home Depot for poor people that was so funny. Now I am opposed nominally to building the "mega" homeless shelter here in my particular community, on principle, for reasons which I will explain later, but I do have several serious problems with this notice, apart from its great comedic value, of course. What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a first-class example of the widespread phenomenon called the "Not In My Backyard" Syndrome.

It's happened before here in Toronto. I remember that a few years back, our Federal government, in all its great wisdom and insight, decided to move Canada's equivalent to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention from Winnipeg to a more up-to-date building in Toronto, thus bring both extra millions in funding and jobs to this city. The only problem was, was that the proposed new building for the Center was to be located near the edge of a residential neighbourhood, so the usual gang of community activists and hysterical media got together and made the government cancel the move, just because of the miniscule "possibility" of contamination (by that logic, we should all lock ourselves in our basements all the time, since there's always the "possibility" of us being struck by lightning), even though the proposed new building would have state-of-the-art, bleeding edge security measures which would make it virtually impossible for any such of disaster to take place. So now, thanks to them, Canada has to now to make do with a Centre for Disease Control and Prevention that is located in a building with both older equipment and older security measures, a move that could ironically enough, harm more lives in the future than it would, had the Centre actually been moved to Toronto for the first place. All because of a microscopic "possibility." Which, of course prompts the question of how safety-conscious the people of Winnipeg and Atlanta must be and whether or not they have actually thought of all the consequences and "possibilities" of having such Centres in their own backyards. Maybe they should be all moved to remote, underground chasms deep in the countryside and to hell with their phenomenal security records and what the researchers' families might think of such a move! My safety always comes first.

Looking at the alarming notice, I see the exact same things happening and with the exact same paranoia and hysteria. Well, this to be expected, given that the notice was written and distributed by that strange cabal called the "community action committee." Every neighbourhood has at least one of these groups, populated by that odd subspecies of activist known as the "community activist," which act generally act as a weird mixture of heritage society and gentrification Mafia. We see their good works just about everywhere, from the protestors who didn't want the Canadian CDC in their neighbourhood to the 70s leftovers still in Birkenstocks and worshipping "Mother Earth" by staging a sit-in and smoking pot on the latest building site to the adorably cute little grannies with their wheelchairs and sewing needles who don't want that huge condo built because it'll block out the sun from their English garden to the members of the Black Panther Party of Harlem, who decried ex-President Clinton's decision to move his offices (which he reportedly hardly uses) there because they feared that such a move would herald a white invasion of the traditionally black neighbourhood. But no matter how colourful or violent their background, the community activist's cry is always the same. That homeless shelter? That dance club? That rave party? That low-rent housing? Sure, you can have them, but not in my backyard.

But there is a more sinister motive behind the community activist's whining. Looking once again at the notice I received, I paused at the line, "Don't let our neighbourhood become another Regent Park and Jane/Finch Corridor." Now, as you can guess by the context, those neighbourhoods aren't exactly the most expensive or desirable places to live in here in Toronto. Regent Park is a group of ugly and filthy houses and low and high-rise apartment buildings, which the government built after destroying an entire community of picturesque Victorian houses (this was before it was fashionable for up and coming yuppies to buy and renovate such houses) and it has the honour (or dishonour) of being Canada's oldest and largest government housing project. The architect for Regent Park was reportedly told by officials to not make the buildings too pretty to look at, otherwise the neighbours might get jealous. The Jane/Finch corridor is a group of huge apartment buildings located in a remote, far-off northwest corner of the city, which hardly anyone visits, and if they do, they'll generally want to leave as soon as possible. Both areas have become synonymous with what a poor neighbourhood is like here in Toronto. Both have high crime rate and are full of either recent immigrants in Canada (mostly from African nations) or poor blacks. The big problem I have with the notice, other than with the hysterical notion that just one homeless shelter, even a "mega" one would drag our neighbourhood down to the level of a Jane/Finch corridor or Regent Park, is that it seems to imply that we don't want homeless people in our neighbourhood, for the exact same reason racist white people don't want blacks to move into their neighbourhoods. Despite all their bleatings about our community's "quality of life," community activists appear always to have a more selfish and foreboding purpose. If the homeless shelter does open, they fear that their property values are going to be dragged down.

This is patently absurd and morally repulsive reasoning. There are a lot more homeless people and shelters downtown than there are here, yet are the values of those luxury condominiums every aspiring Bobo seems to want to live in now, being dragged down? Anyway, I'm sure that if you study property values and its correlations with race closely enough, perhaps there is truth to the old racist adage that the higher percentage of blacks there are in the neighbourhood, the lower the property values and vice versa, but that would simply ignore the cultural and social factors of racism which even the most ardent conservative must acknowledge still exist and which continue to keep blacks and other visible minorities behind in Western society on a whole. Such logic can be taken to preposterous lengths. You could also probably find that, in neighbourhoods where, say, Asians live in greater than normal proportions, that the property values are generally lower than average. Should we also discourage and discriminate against those nasty Asians from moving into our communities? Or what about the opposite? Say if our proposed property values study found that the neighbourhoods with the best property values had a higher than average number of gay, Catholic, white businessmen in their mid-to-late forties. Are the "community activists" going to seek out and pander to such a tiny and specialized group in order to improve their community's "quality of life?"

It would only be natural and logical next step for them to do so, after observing some of their behaviour in the past. And if the adage I just quoted, of blacks lowering property values is now considered racist, shouldn't the adage that homeless shelters and homeless people lowering our property values also be considered "classist" as well? Or it is that at this point in time in Western society, it not acceptable for the so-called "community activist" to discriminate against blacks, gays, and other such visible minorities, but it is acceptable for them to discriminate against the homeless and other poor people? If we go down the route of "community activism," it will only lead to an increase in the repugnant phenomena of the "gated community" and a continuation of segregation, in one form or the other. I'm afraid that I can only conclude that these "community activists" are the spiritual descendants of the same people who wanted to keep blacks from moving into their neighbourhoods, not because they were racists per se, oh no, they are too sophisticated and enlightened to fall into that particular trap, but because they fear for the community's "character" and "quality of life," in other words, its property values.

The Solution

The homeless in New York only get the Times front page when a Republican is in the White House
The homeless in New York only get the Times front page when a Republican is in the White House

So what are we to do with the homeless problem in our society? The problem with finding a solution to the problem is that the great Liberal vs. Conservative ideological divide is as great here as it is on any other issue. The general consensus among Liberals in America at least, is that the poor and the homeless don't exist while a Democrat is in the White House. They only emerge from their hovels or wherever they spend their wretched lives when they hear that yet another deranged, evil, capitalist, money-loving pig of a Republican has been elected. During this time, they torment the consciences of the American people and remind them to vote Democrat in four years' time. Once done, they obligingly disappear back into their secret underground chasms, where they lie dormant in suspended animation until the next Republican president comes along. That is the poor's only purpose in life, you see. L. Brent Bozell, President of Media Research Center, wrote a good, eye-opening, but absolutely damming column which proves that our liberal news media only rediscovers the homeless when a Republican is in the White House and callously ignores them the rest of the time. And American Conservatives? Well, judging from some of the comments I have read at FreeRepublic and other conservative web sites, the general consensus among them is that no matter who is President, Democrat or Republican, the homeless problem is greatly exaggerated by professional poverty activists everywhere, that the homeless fall into two categories: those who have fallen into unfortunate circumstances and those who are addicted to some substance, just too lazy or who like being homeless, and that we don't need to help the first type of homeless person because he or she will pull herself up from homelessness on his or her own, while the second type is simply too hopeless to waste our valuable time and tax dollars on, and finally, that any attempt by the government, rather than by private business and/or philanthropy, on any level, to spend money and attempt to help the homeless and poor whatsoever, is a malignantly-motivated attempt by meddling bureaucrats trying to expand an already inefficient, wasteful, intrusive, and enormous "Welfare State," one to which all real conservatives are naturally opposed and wish to destroy completely and utterly.

Okay, perhaps I stereotype a bit here, but if there is a real answer to the homeless problem, "compassionate conservatism" certainly isn't it. This already nebulous and intentionally vague doctrine, which the new Bush Presidency supposedly operates under, is less a real ideology, than a market-tested catch phrase (since when did good, old-fashioned ordinary "conservatism" have to humiliatingly call itself "compassionate?"). Given that President Bush captured a minority of the votes and hence, has almost no mandate to govern the United States, using the phrase, "compassionate conservatism" is a practical and savvy political move on his part. As the White House marketers will inevitably "spin" it, when Bush banks left to appease American liberals, as he no doubt will, he's using the "compassionate" part of his ideology, and when President Bush banks right to appease his conservative base, he's using the "conservative" part of the phrase. Combine the two parts and you have the sum total of what "compassionate conservatism" means in America today. The "Permanent Campaign" White House and Presidency appears to have become, well, permanent.

All I can say with certainty, is that with an estimated 50 000 people on the street in this city, more homeless shelters need to be built and this applies to practically every major urban centre in North America at least, as well. Even our ultra right-wing provincial government agrees with that assessment and has recently proposed renovating a giant old hospital downtown into a new shelter, but for some vindictive political reason, poverty activists have churlishly refused to use the site, because it is supposedly "inappropriate," though why it was called that was never elaborated on. With spokespeople such as these, no wonder there is such a large homeless problem in our cities. Even our popular mayor, Mel Lastman, seems to have underestimated the effects and extent of the disaster. During his first mayoral campaign, he stupidly said that in the last city he governed, North York, there was no homeless people. The very next day, just like in a movie, a streetperson was found frozen to death during the night in a North York gas station washroom. Lastman still went on to win the election, though.

So, is there any real, lasting solution to the homeless problem? As I said before, building more shelters is a good start, but perhaps I should suggest to our city's planners that they locate these shelters where there are actual homeless people. Building a "mega" shelter here in my neighbourhood strikes me as an extraordinary mistake and a massive waste of government time and money, given that with the possible exception of one or two drunks and that bag lady who goes around with a shopping cart and steals stuff from our garbage once in awhile, I know of no other streetpeople who regularly congregate in this community. And that is the problem I have with building the "mega" shelter here rather than downtown where most of the homeless people are, not because of the more selfish and deceitful reasons of the "community activists," but because building the "mega" shelter in this neigbourhood strikes me as both a particularly useless gesture of so-called "compassion" and a gigantic white elephant as well. Remember, I thought we were trying to help the homeless, not hinder them. Is the city seriously expecting most poor streetpeople to walk several kilometres or pay bus or cab fare to get to such an out-of-the-way homeless shelter? They have enough problems as it stands.

Still, it's a far better solution to the homeless problem than what one of my old high school friends once proposed. He said jokingly that we should herd all the homeless people here in Toronto into the Skydome (Toronto's eyesore of a stadium on our lakefront which coincidentally seats about 50 000 people), lock the doors, throw away the keys, and then proceed to blow up the stadium, thus hitting two birds with one stone. That's hilarious, don't you think? Absolutely hilarious.

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Houston Review and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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