Society problems

The challenges of the city center are societal, and it is therefore up to society to solve them

This week’s Market Squared examines why there is no magic wand to solve the problems of homelessness and addiction in the city centre.

To preface the next screed, let me say that I know everyone is doing their best. We are weary and grumpy from the pandemic, and long-simmering systemic issues now seem to have erupted into insurmountable problems that threaten our ability to overcome even one of a multitude of challenges.

That said, discussion in Committee of the Whole this week on homelessness, addictions and mental health issues in the inner city went all the way to the line of outdated and offensive comments about “these people”, and even if no one used the words, many were certainly thinking about it.

One person said downtown was in a “diabolical state,” which my friend Merriam-Webster says is defined as “wicked; proceeding from the devil; satanic or infernal.

So the devil made them do it? Perhaps blowing up a local landmark with satanic value — like what happened to the Georgia Guidestones monument in the southern United States earlier this week — will bring us closer to a solution.

It’s also been said that we have no idea what Wellington County does with the nearly $24 million we pay them every year for social services, which is nonsense because they have the exact same rules fiscal responsibility that we have in the city of Guelph. They don’t keep a big blue book in the freezer under the ground chuck and a big red book they show the ARC.

Where does the money go? The administration of social housing, child care and Ontario Works, the things the province is mandated to provide. And while the Ontario government plays a role in funding, the county is, in many ways, still stuck in the same regulatory quagmire we are.

Well, maybe it’s the availability of too many social services downtown, they’re all concentrated in one place! Of course they are. That’s the core, and since a lot of these agencies are government, or government-funded, that’s exactly where they’re supposed to be, at the center of it all.

Certainly, it’s a dynamo that lives on: people gather downtown because that’s where the help is, and as the number of people who need help grows, the number of services located downtown to provide this assistance is also increasing. You meet people where they are, and where they are is downtown.

It’s also where a lot of businesses try to make a living, and I’m not trying to take that frustration away, but you can’t have all the cool and wonderful aspects of downtown, and not accept the most difficult aspects. The Downtown Guelph Business Association may think that if they have enough rope they can run the center like a mall, but it’s not a mall. It’s a quarter.

And good luck if you plan to move some social services to another region. Can you imagine if someone suggested moving, say, the consumption and processing site to Pergola Commons on the south end, or the Bullfrog Mall? Act all offended if you want to, but deep down you know it would be a proverbial shit show.

This is where many of us – “those who are well housed, well warmed and well fed”, as Herman Melville once observed – make “absurd assumptions” about the habits of the poor. Do we expect desperate people on welfare downtown to simply hop in their car and drive across town to get all the help they need in several different places?

It’s a ridiculously naïve thought, even by Guelph standards, as if a bylaw were handing out tickets to people who were hanging around downtown with nowhere to go.

All of these suggestions are based on the assumption that this is a problem to be solved and not that these are people who desperately need help.

Nearly five decades of a vapid consumer culture has made us believe that any solution can be our solution, immediately and at the lowest possible cost, but solutions to real problems rarely come so easily. If policing the poor, defunding social services, or simply telling people to “suck” really worked, the problem would get better, not worse.

Will the list of seven motions adopted by the committee this week have an impact? I don’t know, but as a general rule in politics it’s better to get caught trying than to give up and say there’s nothing to be done, or even nothing to be done at all.

What I do know is that acting in shock and embarrassment at the results of our new golden age is not productive. Requiring the board to “do something” to put “those people” somewhere out of sight is equally pointless, even if you just mean it.

We now stand at the intersection of a society built on stagnant low wages and super inflated house prices and for too long we’ve said those who couldn’t keep up were too slow, stupid or lazy for this economic landscape in rapid evolution. You didn’t want a living wage, you didn’t want affordable housing, and now we have this.

So what do we do now?