The Shelter Crisis Forces Us to Ask Hard Questions About Society

This article was first published in the Huffington Post on January 8, 2018

In what kind of society do we want to live?

This is the question many Canadians, and especially Torontonians, may be asking themselves, as we have struggled with a shelter and housing crisis that has left our fellow residents out in unbearably cold weather for the past couple of weeks.

Do we want to live in a society driven by frugal Scrooge-like governance, which leaves many of our neighbours behind? One driven by a singular focus on (imaginary) savings, leaving gaps in essential human needs, such as food, shelter and basic health; gaps which are then partially made up by charitable individuals and groups? Or one where we, and our government, build a society in which everyone’s well-being is respected, their needs are accounted for and where no one is left behind?

Do we want a society where we rely on charity, or one where there is no need for charity?

I opt for the latter.

I am not chiding charity. I believe in it. I have spent thousands of hours, since my early teens, volunteering at charitable organizations. Charity has been at the foundation of our civilizations. Rooted in religious conviction, charity is the most humane and compassionate aspect of all religions. And while our society is no longer as religious as it once was, religious organizations, as well as individuals and non-profit groups, continue to embrace and advocate for charity year-round.

From Out of the Cold programs run by religious coalitions to food banks to “mobile” (read van) services for the homeless to individuals handing out sleeping bags or chipping in to pay for hotels for homeless people during a frightfully frigid winter, charity is weaved into the fabric of our social democratic society. Without charity, we would more starkly resemble the desperate Dickensian poverty from which we think we have distanced ourselves.

But what’s more, our governments rely on charity to do the work that they are unwilling to do.

Our governments don’t put enough money into building assisted housing for people with disabilities, so families turn to charities for help. We don’t put enough funding into repairing or building new affordable housing, so families crowd themselves into small apartments ripe with problems that are harmful to children or the elderly.

When our governments act, they do so in tepid, small measures, putting off what is essential now for the next election cycle. Our governments are afraid of articulating, or making, the connection between the ballooning wealth of the few and the endless struggle of the many to make it into the middle class, so people in precarious or minimum wage jobs are forced to turn to charity to stay afloat.

But this reliance on charity is neither the most just, nor logical, way of governing a social democratic society.

If we build the systems and structures we need to take care of all of our residents as if they were a beloved member of our family, then we would need less charity. A society that builds inclusive neighbourhoods that truly and meaningfully provide for members would include: mental health support at the early stages when the needs arise; schools that provide kids with the skills and education they need, so that their family’s inability to afford a tutor or extra-curricular activities does not put them at a disadvantage; housing that is available and affordable to people of all income levels in all parts of the city so that homelessness is history.

That society will not need charity.

What’s more: for those who want to keep government expenses low, the evidence shows that it costs us less to prevent problems and be proactive than to respond retroactively or to emergencies. And, as the recent efforts of those kind-hearted Torontonians who used their own money to put up homeless people in hotels overnight confirms, taxation and proper governance will generally cost less than charity.

Charity has its foundation in established religion. But so does the concept of notneeding charity. “There shall be no needy among you,” is but one exhortation from the Bible that commands us to build a world where, in effect, there is no charity because there is no need for charity.

The notion of a “just society” should presume the equity and compassion needed to build inclusive communities. Fairness and empathy must be weaved into the very fabric of a just society, including its governance, so no one is left out at night, ever. Our elected representatives must have the courage to be just, so we can live in a world with no charity.

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