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The difference between doing nothing and accomplishing nothing

This week's Market Squared wonders how we always end up doing nothing when it seems like everyone wants to do something
GuelphToday file photo

It feels like a million years ago that Mayor Cam Guthrie got up at one of his annual State of the City speeches and apologized for not realizing the breadth and depth of Guelph’s homelessness crisis. He didn’t quite say, “never again”, but the mayor did seem rhetorically ready to seize the opportunity to act and close down those growing number of homeless encampments.

And then the problem got worse.

The first thing to understand about the housing crisis is that it’s no one person’s fault. Yes, developers are enjoying the money they’re making, and yes, upper levels of government have downloaded the work on municipalities and welched on their financial commitment. Also, our municipal governments have suffered from a lack of imagination to address the problem, our media missed just how bad the situation was getting, and it’s not like the community was insisting that it be made a priority.

A fire was started, and then gasoline was thrown on it when the pandemic arrived, and it became even more important to have a place to live and even more difficult to be able to afford it. What we had was a dormant volcano, all quiet on the surface but with a huge cavern of magma churning underneath, and then the volcano erupted, and we watched lava flow down the mountainside after it was covered in 100 proof alcohol.

So how does what happened at council this week change that? The short answer is that it doesn’t because the proposed temporary structured encampment, the tiny home community, is now going to the Joint Social Services and Land Ambulance Committee to die. If City of Guelph staff don’t want to do it, then Wellington County staff won’t want to do it either, and I fear there’s a dreadful lack of imagination among the members from the county side to push for it.

The county, as it always does, will argue that it’s doing everything it already can on the matter as the consolidated service manager: They oversee social housing, administer Ontario Works and manage childcare, which is what the Ontario government mandates them to do. All the City of Guelph does is write them a cheque and maybe raise some thoughts and issues at the committee level, but there are ultimately no Guelph representatives on county council where final decisions are made.

It's this lack of influence and authority that drove a discussion at city council almost 15 years ago to depart from the shared social services committee. Spelunking in the internet archive, I went back in time to January 2010 when then-Mayor Karen Farbridge led Guelph council into a wicked divorce with the county after a back and forth about governance, “4-4 stalemates” and a $4-million lawsuit about funding the Wellington Terrace long-term care home in Fergus.

According to a Guelph Mercury article at the time, Farbridge noted a need for more social services costs to “come under this (Guelph) council’s control,” and that “at a very fundamental level this (relationship) is not working and sometimes you need to reboot.”

Guelph took its ambulances and went home and left social services to its own devices, and for years only money exchanged hands as each government managed its own bailiwick. It wasn’t ideal, and a line from county CAO Scott Wilson at the time ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“We can’t start an ambulance service. They may find the same thing” for a Guelph social services committee, Wilson told the Wellington Advertiser in 2010.

So now we’re essentially back at square one, the new joint social services committee has four voting members from the county and four voting members from the city. A tie vote in committee is a failed vote, so a stalemate is inevitable despite the good vibes everyone walks into the meeting room with, and it’s impossible not to think that the proverbial first seal is now primed to open over tiny homes. The new committee is not even two months old.

I mentioned Guthrie’s 2019 admission of failure at the top for a reason, because it was over five years ago now and the conditions and circumstances that led to the crisis have not changed. The conditions for creating solutions have not changed either because we have local governments shackled by the regulations prescribed by upper levels of government who are too far removed from the problem and yet hold the vast majority of the power and money to fix it.

I’m old enough to remember that in 2019, a lack of expertise in housing at the City was one of the reasons why any and all attempts to address the issue hit a wall. I’m old enough to remember that the mayor’s task force on homelessness also hit a wall after months of organizing. Yes, the problem is massive, but it’s increasingly seeming like the good will of the community isn’t the cure all we want it to be. There are some big systemic issues in the way.

If the City of Guelph lacks expertise on housing, why doesn’t it go out and get some? That’s not to say that we should set up our own social services department, or duplicate the efforts of the county as the consolidated service manager, but if our city council wants to chase solutions that are beyond the county’s brief as the CSM, should we not proactively seek out people on the bureaucratic end to make those solutions happen? Could we not have hired anyone at some point in the last five years?

A delegate on Wednesday wondered aloud if the headline for this week’s piece would be, “Council does nothing again on housing”, but that’s not the story. It’s not that council does nothing, it’s that they encounter a form of forced helplessness where the ideas hit that red (tape) concrete wall, and what’s the point of continually introducing new ideas, and giving people hope, and then saying, “Well, we’re not equipped to do that”?

What if five years ago we started building a system that could help us execute ideas both in and outside the box? Where are we going to be in five years if we don’t address the big roadblock that’s keep us from realizing our big ideas? Ronald Ragan soured a generation of people on the idea of good governance by making them believe that “government is the problem”, and yet, sometimes it is.


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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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