Friday, October 21, 2011

Guest Comment, Nanaimo Bulletin

I’ve just finished Gabor Maté’s remarkable book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – Close Encounters With Addiction and thought I’d share some thoughts in regard to the assisted housing initiatives the city and province are undertaking here in Nanaimo.

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 it all seemed to spell salvation from the turmoil and smells and poverty of the inner city.

Nothing characterizes today’s suburban single-family neighbourhood more than its demographic uniformity. Which, in truth, was and is still at least part of its appeal.
The introduction of any element that tries to retrofit diversity into our single-family neighbourhoods will be 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.

The new assisted housing facility being built on Wesley Street 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.

A sizable percentage of folks identified as homeless suffer from substance addiction of one kind or another. But, as Maté points out, 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.

An insight from 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 would be 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 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 planning and designing more diverse and inclusive single family neighbourhoods?

Frank Murphy, Nanaimo