Monday, October 17, 2011

Email to Nanaimo Social Planner John Horn

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
Date: Mon, 17 Oct 2011 15:23:46 -0700
From: Frank Murphy <>

John: I've been thinking. I'm the first to admit that good does not always follow that but anyway... I've just finished Gabor Maté's remarkable In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and thought I'd share some thoughts.

Before I talk about that though, indulge me for a minute: more with your Urban Planner's hat on than your Social Planner's. I want to offer a perspective that will certainly not be news to you and also will unfortunately offer very little help in the daunting immediate problems you face particularly with the assisted housing initiatives the City and Province are currently undertaking here in Nanaimo. At the same time though I'm sure you'll agree that this perspective has a legitimate place in the discourse. And it's basically this: our single family residential neighbourhoods are part of what can be seen from this vantage point (some 50 or 60 years after their post war beginnings) as an historic social experiment. Demographics and economics were among the dynamic elements at work in their creation. Add the miracle of the internal combustion engine and they seemed to spell salvation from the turmoil and smells and poverty of the inner city. It's probably more than anything the eternal law of unintended  consequences that explains the state of the social experiment in the first decades of the 21st century. Nothing characterizes the suburban single family neighbourhood more than its demographic uniformity. Which was in truth at least part of its appeal, wasn't it. I was an exile from North Vancouver almost 20 years ago. We raised our daughter in the wonderful air and civility of North Nanaimo. Though now that she's grown up and moved to Victoria with a VIU BA and BEd tucked under her arm, we've moved downtown to the more dense and diverse Old City...

The new assisted housing facility being built on Wesley isn't generating the opposition that others have in other neighbourhoods and the diversity of the inner city certainly seems to be a reason for this. (Though, while you still have your Urban Planner's hat on I'll take the opportunity to say this: I'm disappointed that this facility and the new City Hall Annex aren't being built as  part of a master plan for the Quennell Square precinct. I would have liked to have seen a collaborative effort that included heavy-hitter stakeholders like the City, the provincial Department of Education and others that would have resulted in a national, even international design competition to re-imagine this large site with a strong education and training focus with a mix of income levels, housing types, and a strong institutional presence. Perhaps VIU could have been enticed to participate.)

But I digress... I'm sure you can see the point I'm getting at: that the introduction of any element that tries to retro-fit diversity into our single family neighbourhoods will meet with vocal opposition. We've been building these communities of uniformity for decades and imposing overdue and badly needed change on them will result in loud passionate opposition. So I can't help but ask, What can we do to incrementally address the lack of diversity in these neighbourhoods at the same time? What contributes to neighbourhood, detracts from it?

And some thoughts from having read Dr Maté's wonderful book. You would know better than I the percentage of folks identified as "homeless" that suffer from substance addiction of one kind of another. But I imagine you'd agree that the need for shelter is uniformly not the central problem of those who need help. Underlying crises of addiction; physical and emotional trauma; diagnosable, treatable mental disorders, etc are at the heart of the misery these folks endure. It occurs to me that we need to correctly frame the problem: it's a health care issue. Canada is world famous for our collective commitment to the principle that those in need of medical help, get it. It's one of those things that make us proud to be Canadian. I think it was a mistake to frame this public discussion as one about housing. These valuable facilities are in fact more clinic than shelter where Canadians who need help get it. (In my personal view supervised maintenance of addiction where and until recovery is a viable alternative is included in what is meant by medical help.)

An insight from Dr Maté's book touches on the support environment that contributes to the healing and recovery of people who have slipped through our pretty meager safety nets. With the facilities up and running in neighbourhoods opposed to them, very vulnerable people will find themselves in a hostile environment on a number of levels -- they will of course be sensitive to the animosity in the air but I think as disturbing is finding oneself in the car-oriented suburbs with traffic a blur, walking a hostile, dangerous activity and instead of stopping by the corner store for smokes and chips and getting to know the let's say Vietnamese shopkeeper by name, and he or she you by name, your only alternative is the glossy alienating artifice of the palace of consumerism that is the shopping mall.

Not reason to not do it. But how do we at least begin to make incremental progress on solving some of these problems?

Frank Murphy

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