No Particular Place To Go
The Nanaimo press has its shorts in a knot over the number of pan handlers, homeless, druggies, winos and hookers in the downtown area. True, it is a problem, there have been a number of break-ins in small businesses and more than a few people Joe and Jane Tourist might find scary are hanging around on street corners. The suggested solution, that of driving the underclass out of downtown, is no real solution. All it will do is push them into someone else's neighborhood, creating the situation anew. Nor will harsher laws help, as drug addiction is a social-medical problem and the legal approach does not and cannot succeed. I am pleased to see a fair number of Letters to the Editor, have pointed this out.
Homelessness really didn't exist 35 years ago – other than the real end-of-the-road winos – and the reason it didn't was the existence of many cheap rooming houses called “flop houses”. Anyone could panhandle the price of a room in one of these. Gentrification, by-laws and an insane rise in the price of real estate, wiped out the flops. Homeless people don't want to live in some rule-infested, or religion spouting shelter. Their last shred of dignity and humanity is that they live by their own rules. The flops had only two rules – don't start a fire and no serious fighting. The way to end homelessness is to create a contemporary version of the flop house. But I find that hard to imagine. The do-gooder types will want a great list of regulations, and there goes Mr. Homeless back to his park bench. Property-value obsessed middle class types won't want a flop in their neighborhood and the “small government for the poor, big government for the rich” pseudo-libertarians will howl about the tax-payer expense, if these should be built by the civic government.
Many of the people on the street in the past were institutionalized as mental patients. Right-wing governments closed mental hospital wards and dumped these unfortunates upon us. ( A legitimate response would be to close right-wing governments and dump THEIR occupants on the street.) I also find a certain irony that some folks demanding a “get tough” approach with the underclass, are the very ones who made the down town an ideal place for them. By imposing an “American model” on the city – gutting the downtown business district and moving everything to distant shopping malls – they took the life out of the place, and the losers naturally moved in. Now that an Arts District and an Old Town have been created to revitalize the downtown, the crackheads and crazies are underfoot.
Another problem is that all real solutions are long term. This doesn't help the book shop that just had its front window smashed by drunks. There should be a zone where the rejects are allowed to congregate, rather than pushing them about from neighborhood to neighborhood. We need a Red Light District or Tenderloin, at least until the long term solutions kick in. Creating this zone will of course, be a problem, as anyone residing there or with a business nearby will loudly object – all one needs to do is watch re-runs of DaVinci's City Hall to see the problems a government might encounter trying to set up a Red Light District. The old fashioned pay-off, long a feature of our politics, is in order here. Yes, paying-off the objectors is sleazy, but is probably the simplest method.
The most important of the long-term solutions, treating addiction as a medical, not a criminal problem, faces the most severe difficulty of all. Far too many powerful people benefit from the present barbarism. First off, those who benefit directly from drug illegality - the drug gangs, their “legitimate capitalist” investors and money launderers, corrupt right-wing politicians, and cops on the take. Then there are the even greater number who benefit indirectly. Treat addiction as a medical problem and put the addicts on support and they will no longer do B 'n E's and rob convenience stores. There goes maybe 50% of the crime rate. Many cops, prison guards and Just-Us officials will be left left pulling unemployment insurance. They, like all folks threatened with job loss, will fight to the bitter end, even though their jobs entail a kind of cannibalism. (1) And while our governments have gleefully tossed hospital employees and social service workers into the street, don't expect them to be so eager to try 'reforms' out on their forces of repression.
While the obstacles are enormous, this doesn't mean that humane and rational solutions cannot eventually triumph. Europeans have already moved in that direction and in time Canada will as well, (in spite of the Harpocrits) but only if we put the maximum pressure on our Rulers to make these changes. And one way to do this is to de-legitimize the forces of the drug and poverty status quo. No more polite arguments, no more Mr. and Ms. Nice Guy – expose these people for what they are – corrupt or stupid.
1. The drug laws and the resulting police-prison industrial complex works exactly like the old Soviet Gulag system. People are persecuted, arrested and imprisoned, all suffer and many lives are shortened in the process, all for irrational reasons. Meanwhile, thousands of people make a living off this suffering and work hard to make sure the system remains in place. There ought to be Nuremberg-type trials for the fiends responsible for this situation.