Homeless part of our city

Editor's note: this editorial first appeared in the March 15, 2018 edition of The Citizen.Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Tiffany May's letter ("Homeless people ruining city for all"), she has done Prince George a great service by sparking thought and discussion about homelessness.

Her tone is harsh, her criticism of the RCMP unwarranted and her depiction of the homeless trivial and largely inaccurate but her frustration is real, misplaced or not. She is also not alone in her anger and fear. These are common feelings, not just in Prince George but in people around the world, and that anger and fear is fueling wars, revolutions, protests, political movements and conspiracy theories. Discrimination and hatred, as well as social change and community engagement, are also happening as a result, some times in the same places at the same time.

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Likewise, homelessness is a global problem, in countries and cities rich and poor.

Regardless of where they are in the world, poverty, violence, addiction, mental illness and trauma - alone or in combination - drives people into the streets, as it has for thousands of years, from the formation of the very first cities.

Not only has wealth, technology and social progress not stopped it, there is a strong argument to be made that it has only made it worse, deepening the disconnect between those with and those without.

That is how big and complicated an issue homelessness is and there is no simple solution or everyone would be doing it.

That doesn't mean, however, that nothing can be done.

Tiffany states in her letter that she prays for the homeless. It should be noted that many local churches and religious groups make helping the homeless and the working poor their top priority, devoting time, money and effort to the cause. Without their work, more people would be suffering and that pain would be felt much deeper in the community. Ten years ago, Citizen reporter Mark Nielsen joined a group of Prince George city councillors and community leaders on a fact-finding mission to Portland, Ore., a city that has made serious headway on homelessness with its Housing First strategy.

The program took more than 1,500 homeless people off the streets in two years, finding people a place to live and then providing the necessary support, such as counselling and life-skills training, to keep that roof over their heads.

If all of that sounds expensive, it is but it's still cheaper than the status quo. Portland officials told Nielsen that a chronically homeless person costs $40,000 per year in community services but just $28,000 when moved into social housing.

Meanwhile, downtown merchants paid for private security patrols to augment an increased police presence, which made the city centre safer for merchants, residents and the homeless. Downtown crime dropped by 30 per cent and pedestrian traffic increased by 25 per cent as a result.

As Portland shows, community partnerships between the private and public sector, between police and social agencies, between health providers and aid groups, all backed with government support and funding is essential.

So is the attitude that the homeless are real people with real problems that can't be fixed overnight with a one-size-fits-all solution. Treating them with the dignity and respect everyone likes to receive goes much further than detached pity and prayers.

If cities and countries actually got serious about the old platitude about the true measure of a people's worth is how they treat the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, perhaps things would be better.

Focussing on the plight of the homeless and the working poor doesn't mean Prince George can't work towards nice things to have, like arts and cultural events, beautiful parks, great roads, excellent schools and world-class health care. Not only can those things happen simultaneously, positive change drives further benefits that are good for everyone.

Cost is less the issue than commitment and patience, as well as the temptation to yank away government money at the first sign of improvements.

Anger and fear are useful emotions if they spark the desire to stop complaining, stop blaming others, stop saying that somebody should do something and start facing the problem head-on, start identifying solutions and start taking action.

Thanks for your letter, Tiffany.

Now let's all get to work.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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