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Downtown's challenges are societal, and thus society's to fix

This week's Market Squared looks at why there's no magic wand to solving issues of homelessness and addiction in the core.
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To preface the following screed, let me just say that I know everyone’s doing their best. We’re tired and cranky from the pandemic, and long simmering systemic issues now seem to have erupted into insurmountable problems that threaten our ability to overcome even one out of a multitude of challenges.

Having said that, the discussion at committee of the whole this week about homelessness, addiction and mental health issues in the downtown core walked right up to the line of outdated and offense commentary about 'those people,' and while no one used the words, many were definitely thinking them.

One person said that the downtown core was in a “diabolical state”, which, according to my friend Merriam-Webster, 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 – as what happened to the Georgia Guidestones monument in the southern U.S. earlier this week – will get us closer to a solution.

It was also said that we have no idea what Wellington County does with the nearly $24 million we give them for social services every year, which is nonsense because they have the exact same financial accountability regulations we do at the City of Guelph. They’re not keeping a blue ledger in the freezer under the ground chuck and a red ledger they show CRA.

Where does the money go? The administration of social housing, childcare, and Ontario Works, the things that they’re provincial-mandated to provide. And while the Government of Ontario does play a role when it comes to funding, the county is, in many ways, still stuck in the same regulatory morass that 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. It’s the core, and since a lot of these agencies are governmental, or government-funded, that’s exactly where they’re supposed to be, in the centre of all things.

Admittedly it’s a self-perpetuating dynamo: People gather downtown because that’s where the help is, and as the number of people that need help grows, the number of services located in the downtown to provide that help also grows. You meet people where they are, and where they are is downtown.

That’s also where a lot of businesses are trying to make a living, and I’m not trying to mitigate that frustration, but you can’t have all the cool and wonderful parts of being downtown, and not accept the more challenging parts too. The Downtown Guelph Business Association may think that if they have enough rope they can run the core like a mall, but it’s not a mall. It’s a neighbourhood.

And good luck if you have any thought about moving some social services to another area. Can you imagine if someone proposed moving, for example, the consumption and treatment site to Pergola Commons in the south end, or the Bullfrog mall? Act all offended if you want, but deep down you know it would be a proverbial crap show.

This is where many of us – “The well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed,” as Herman Melville once observed – make “preposterous assumptions” about the habits of the poor. Are we expecting the desperate people accepting social service assistance downtown to just hop in their cars and drive across the city to get all the help they need at several different locations?

That’s ridiculously naive thinking even by Guelph standards, like having bylaw hand out tickets to people hanging out downtown with nowhere else to go.

All these suggestions are made on the assumption that this is a problem to solve and not that these are people genuinely in desperate need of help.

Nearly five decades of a vapid consumerist culture has brainwashed us into think that any solution can be our way, right away, and for the cheapest possible cost, but solutions to real problems rarely come so easily. If policing the poor, starving social services of funding, or just telling people to “suck it up” actually worked, the problem would be getting better, not worse.

Will the slate of seven motions passed by committee this week have any impact? I don’t know, but as a general rule in politics it’s better to get caught trying than to throw up your hands and say there’s nothing you can do, or even do nothing at all.

What I do know is that acting with shock and embarrassment about the results of our new Gilded Age is not productive. Demanding that council “do something” to put “those people” somewhere out of sight is equally unhelpful, even if you’re just thinking it.

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

So what do we do now?


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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