This letter is written in response to a guest editorial that suggests, among other things, that the solution to downtown Prince George's problems is stricter law enforcement and increased public surveillance through closed-circuit television video. I agree with its author on two key points: the current situation is not acceptable and the half-measured harm reduction strategies put into effect are not working.
Apart from that, I have a dramatically different view of the issue and how best to address the problem. I'd like to offer an alternative perspective, which I believe is more likely to bring about the desired change most of us seek in the long run.
By way of introduction, I am a librarian who comes from a diverse background. I was born in South America, raised and educated in South Texas, and began my career in Washington, D.C. I met my wife while working on social development projects in Central America for the Peace Corps and together we're now raising our young children in Prince George. I've seen a lot of the world and perceived it from many different angles.
As a person of colour, a visible minority, now twice an immigrant, who endured the trauma of an abusive childhood, I can proudly say that I've done well for myself. But statistically I know the odds were generally not stacked in my favour and I never forget that. I am a fortunate outlier in the long tail of a constellation of bell curves that historically has trapped many others. While I accept individual responsibility for my own actions and therefore claim partial credit for my successes, I recognize that my fate is largely determined by factors beyond my control, some of which have benefited me and others that have hampered me.
Put another way, our lives are a sequence of coin flips. Sometimes we can increase our odds of winning those flips but not always and, even then, there's no guarantee that we'll win. These are the rules of the game, one that we collectively as a society - not as individuals - have agreed to follow. And unless those rules change dramatically at some point over time, we will always end up with similar sets of winners and losers that in turn accrue advantages and disadvantages as the game progresses over generations.
This is the underlying algorithm of history. It explains why social imbalances strongly correlate to things like race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and wealth. And it explains why homelessness and drug abuse are pervasive problems in much of today's developed world, including Canada and our community of Prince George.
Yes, some individuals make particularly poor life choices and certainly they bear some responsibility for their situations. But the larger, more disturbing truth is that mathematically this outcome was inevitable because that's how our society works. In theory, you could run the model multiple times with individuals making different decisions at different points in time, which might dramatically alter the trajectory of their respective lives, but overall the pattern distribution would remain the same because the underlying physics of society (i.e. what we collectively value, how we determine our individual worth, how we define happiness, etc.) would continue unaltered. Under different circumstances, any of us could be homeless or addicted to drugs.
What's the solution then?
We have to change the fundamental equation that drives everything in our world, both locally and globally. We have to transition away from development models that assume perpetual economic growth, which we know is unsustainable because it's destroying the planet.
We have to put a halt to growing wealth inequality and even reverse it by radically redistributing income so that all humans can enjoy basic amenities like clean water, safe housing, quality education and health care.
There's no excuse for homelessness in a world with billionaires.
We have to reject the neoliberal maxim that greed is good and that elevates the selfish wants of the individual over the collective interest. Why? Because that game has run its course. Left unchecked, capitalism will destroy itself.
In the context of Prince George's problem with homelessness and drug addiction, that means having the state provide public housing and decriminalizing some types of drug use. It means providing 24/7 access to safe injection sites and expanding the availability of naloxone kits to the general public. It means providing and maintaining an adequate supply of public washrooms in the downtown area.
More broadly, it means having elected officials at the local, provincial and federal levels taking their cues from the scientific community when it comes to formulating policies affecting things like the environment and our health. Doing that means electing people that will have a radically different approach to government and that aren't afraid to interfere in the marketplace when it's necessary to preserve the elevated status of human dignity.
The next opportunity you will have to bring about such radical change is this upcoming election day on Oct. 21. Vote.