The Homeless Crisis


by Bill Corden

Every night on the news we see the pictures, every metropolitan area in North America.

Human flotsam and jetsam camped out in city parks, under bridges, they’re even outside the courthouse in our own capital, Victoria, here in British Columbia.

The campsites are littered with garbage, with supermarket carts, pieces of cardboard, tarps, ripped tents and broken down RVs. Crime, drugs and theft in the local neighborhoods run rampant and yet the authorities are hamstrung when it comes to dealing with the problem. The police won’t enforce local laws because;

a) They risk life and limb going into these zones.

b) The justice system puts the homeless back on the street within 24 hrs.

c) They risk losing their jobs if someone files an assault charge against them.

Social Services can do next to nothing as they have 

a) nowhere to house them.

b) no powers to take the helpless into care.

The sites quickly become fetid swamps, no washrooms or running water, local businesses unable to move them on, for fear of being labelled as racists, bigots or heartless capitalists and so everyone has to suffer, including the occupants of the camps.

I recently had a visit from a friend of mine who lives in Utrecht, in the Netherlands and our conversation turned to this subject. “Do they have the same problem there?” I asked.

My friend, who is a professor at the University there and happens to study these matters (and who grew up in Canada) told me that there were only, now get this, only two homeless/ street beggars in the entire city and he knew them by name.

The reason so few? 

Well, their social security system is much more robust and their policing system works in tandem with Social Services. A small city like Utrecht has set aside enough of their budget to provide permanent shelter to the unfortunates, they have the ability to triage them into lawbreakers, drug addicts or mental health sufferers and they have developed a seamless process to get them to where they belong.

The city itself will not tolerate even ONE person trying to set up camp on public lands and they are taken into custody immediately (because it’s against the law), assessed and then transferred to the care of the appropriate agency, be it Social services, Police or Medical.

It’s easy to solve the problem when you’re sitting on the couch drinking gourmet coffee but in a practical sense it boils down to the Central Governments (not the Municipal Governments) developing a policy and legislation to deal with this nationwide disgrace for countries with money spilling out of the edges.

As my friend said often in our conversation, “It’s mainly a question of the will of society to allocate resources to the problem, it’s not that we don’t have the money, it’s just that we don’t have the will.”

The solution that he is  currently looking at in a University research project (even though they don’t have a problem in their own town) is the establishment of a new Agency with the powers to do what they have to. But in the meantime we have to live with the fractured system that is totally ineffective.

3 Responses

  1. I’m 50 now and have wondered about this phenomenon on and off much of my life.

    I can’t be sure- it might just be that a child’s memory in the first ten years is too vague, but it seems like in Toronto the homeless population exploded in the 80s, compared to the 70s, and has just stayed normal ever since. Maybe a few ups or downs based on economic upheaval, but only marginally, perhaps even the past year. Maybe COVID recession has made it appreciably worse, which would at least make sense.

    I have wondered why. Social program spending seems never to have shrunk much if at all, indeed increasing steadily over time and never cut except occasionally in rate of growth. If that. Recessions come and go. Deindustrialization may be a factor. Mental illness and deinstitutionalization seemed like the reason that best fit the pattern of change around and after 1980, but I have seen many lately question the idea that most homeless are mentally ill. Drugs, sure, but one still has to explain the causal relationship between that and mental illness and/or why so many drug addicts in recent decades compared to before, and what caused their addiction.

    So why so many? I don’t know.

    It seems like money gets spent, housing built. So why to so little effect? It does seem that our political ideology will not allow compulsion, or any idea that public environment should be kept clean for an allegedly superior law abiding public, and so perhaps at last that’s the sole explanation. We tolerate it.

  2. how ’bout that? It’s not a new problem

    Thomas Cromwell had a law passed just about 500 years ago that looked like this. So I’m sorry to say that it’s unlikely that the problem will be solved in the time we’ve got left

    The Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars 1536 (27 Hen VIII c. 25) is unique for a number of reasons. Cromwell passed the law in the House of Commons that stated that “sturdy vagabonds” had to be put to work.[3] The constables, mayors, JPs, sheriffs and anyone in control of a district/parish had to look after their own poor. The poor were not simply punished for being poor, and the men in power would be punished if they did not aid beggars. Taxes were not levied to cover these costs, as taxes were always unpopular, and a number other important changes in England were already causing disharmony. Collections were organised through a common box, to pay for people to be put to work, for the sick to be helped so they could recover and find work, and those who could not work were not left to beg. The poor were to stay within their own district/parish, and in return, they could receive help. There were still harsh punishments in place for those who refused to abide by these rules, but this was the birth of real aid for the poor.

    But this is not the real point of the claim that Anne Boleyn actually wrote up this law. What passed through parliament was Cromwell’s work. But, what Cromwell initially presented to parliament in February 1536 was far from what the law became.[4] Cromwell presented a far more ambitious plan, a law that would tackle poverty right to the root. This plan suggested that the poor were not idle, instead, they had come to their circumstances by more than simply bad choices. Sadly, precious little of Cromwell’s work survived his attainder, so what was specifically said in parliament is not known. What is known is that Cromwell strongly believed in the law he presented to parliament; he made certain King Henry attended the Commons when he put forth the law to the House, as a way of displaying the support he had from the king for this legislation.[5] Parliament’s nine-week session had been delayed by almost six months, so when Cromwell presented this law change, it was already underway in terms of firm planning. But the Act that passed in the House of Commons was a watered-down, rewritten version of the initial plan.[6] Even Henry’s appearance could not get the law to pass, as the Act was so costly. Cromwell essentially pushed for what he could get from the House of Commons. King Henry and Cromwell were not simply tyrants doing their own bidding; the government had the right to push back on law changes and did so at their discretion.

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