Smells Like Team Spirit: A Song about housing and homelessness by H. Robert Mack.


Despair and bitter humor in the mountains that civilization forgot; punitive nit-picking by ninnies, and the lesson of being late to the party

The forum was a small-town affair yet symbolic of our national humor. It was organized by two women: one with extensive experience, and one who dabbled. One had earnest, concrete ideas, while the other believed that a dialogue “in the humor of spring,” so to speak, was impactful in itself. The buildup to the meeting was extensive. After a couple of years of studies and panels, meetings and networking—which followed some twenty years of advocacy by a local leader—the city had invested in a consulting company to develop a housing strategy. All within the context of the provincial and national dialogues on housing, that buzzing, meeting and researching was the wake of something already gone by.

My colleague, the experienced one, knew of my misgivings when she asked me to attend and speak at it.

“You’re not sanguine about this meeting, are you?” she said at the time.

“I assure you my liver is entirely bloody on it,” I said. “It’s my heart, brain, gall bladder, stomach and spleen who are phlegmatic.”

She would mention this because I had spent most of last year advocating very practical solutions to the housing crisis. Such meetings, I felt, were only to pretend that people have had input when decisions had already been made.

The impending housing strategy, for example, represents decisions like that. The year before, the city held an open house to display its vision for the downtown core, involving a storefront theme, and various types of mixed housing. There was nothing to do with the housing crisis, but a vision was in place. Just before the contract for the housing strategy was awarded, the city held a survey which polled respondents on various types of housing options. It also had nothing to do with the ongoing crisis, but there was a vision in place.

The other organizer emailed me, informing that we were not meeting to blame people, but to “celebrate what has been done up to this point.” I haven’t been so choleric but one could hardly feel celebratory when there are clients who could die at any moment in a motel room, for lack of other housing. Several clients were sleeping outside while we celebrated, and others traumatized by the threat of their children being homeless. Such a pre-emptive narration was ironic since the ‘bottom line’ response to proposed solutions was that nothing would happen that was not supported by City Hall. Reading between the lines then, we could suspect that anyone not on the correct side of the issue, those closest to the influencers at City Hall, would be negative.

I said to her, “Look Dolores Umbridge, I’m not saying I am misanthropic, but if one more person tells me I’m negative, I will call upon Zeus himself and have you all swept from the earth.” Dolores didn’t get the references and doesn’t appreciate me being a high and mighty intellectual. I tend to think that the clients of homeless outreach programs need Dolores and her ilk to be more open minded. Tolerating an intellectual seems like a small price to pay in contrast to the trials of homelessness.

Clients of homeless outreach are in varying stages of what you might call “housing decay”, which is not that their houses are falling apart but just that housing in general is in a state of decay.

“With a rental vacancy rate of 2.3%, there is ample availability, but cost barriers
prevent low-income households from accessing suitable accommodation, and there is growing
mismatch between what is available, and what is suitable.” – Housing Needs Assessment, 2018.

Such clients are those who could not outrun the dissolution, snapshots of crisis who somehow avoid the spotlight. Highsmith, a single mother in her thirties, stuck it out in a subsidized housing unit for about as long as she could but is now in a temporary, run-down old house, hoping that new options will come up. Mailer is not old but has COPD and was given six months to live—six months ago. Humbert is a hustler with a list of chronic conditions. He and his wife could no longer afford their moldy trailer. Along with statistics about homelessness, I carried these clients, and more, to this convocation.

There is no need to belabor the point about City Hall because both the provincial construction codes and the city bylaws outline clearly that no structure taller than 1.5 metres (that is intended for human habitation) can be built without first a development permit, and then a building permit. There is no shortage of willingness, or expertise, suitable spaces, motivation, or support from the community. Nor is there any shortage of viable plans to answer this crisis. There is no need to point fingers because all plans, hopes, dreams and conversation about housing and homelessness are drawn inexorably to the crunch-point at City Hall. Any person of agreeable spleen would be reasonable to ask why no “crunching” goes on.

Perhaps the Mayor of Nelson offers a clue. He claimed, in an article about the housing crunch by the Globe and Mail, that if people can’t afford to live in the city, they can always live in the outlying areas, as the commute is “therapeutic.” That article offered no input from the numerous authorities on Nelson’s homelessness issue, but summed up the city’s dialogue about it thus:

“Realtors and city workers throughout the region agree there isn’t an easy solution to the crisis, but many say there needs to be more incentive to build affordable rental units.” The Mayor of our town said the same at the meeting, “It’s complicated.”

My colleague, the earnest one, refers to such dialogue as “double-speak” for a lack of intent, and she’s right. Dolores calls that a “conspiracy theory,” but the truth is that, once you know the playbook, you don’t need to know the players.

Fewer and fewer people can afford to live here. The Housing Needs Assessment identified the following gaps in our local housing market: Non-Market and Market Rental Independent Seniors Housing; Non-Market Rental Housing; Market Rental Housing; Transitional and Low-Barrier Rental Housing; Affordable Homeownership Opportunities; Accessible Housing. In other words, the housing market doesn’t have a gap, it is a gap. It’s a sieve. It’s a bisected pale. In response, we are holding a choir so we can all sing, “There’s a hole in my bucket, Dear Liza!” The housing market is in a state of decay, and I’m sorry, but it is affecting my aria in falsetto.

The invitation to the previous “choir” on homelessness, as always, started from the beginning. Apparently, I hadn’t been meeting with City Hall and City Councillors or conducting a very public survey of the community or promoting my work in homelessness, or conducting Point in Time Counts, or studying potential solutions for homelessness in rural areas. Homelessness has been a standard part of the evening news in BC for a couple of years now. It has been a dramatic, pressing concern for large cities—Toronto has been active on it since the 1980’s—and also for the next two cities closest to ours, but here we are starting over at each meeting.

Okay. Housing. What appears to be the problem?” It is a phlegmatic rhetorical ploy oft described as “The same damned conversation we’ve been having for twenty years.” One could be forgiven for wondering if some folks simply don’t want to do anything about it, or if the “players”, who called advocates like us “cheerleaders” at the meeting, think this is all just a game.

For perspective, solutions to the housing crisis and homelessness are not complicated. There are no inflammatory digestives because here it is: Build smaller homes on smaller properties, for ownership. That’s it. That is what truly needs to happen. Research on these matters, going back to the 1960’s, has been easily found, compiled and summarized. In fact, here is one summary from 1990: “However, every scholarly study in the, by now, sizable literature on homelessness which has empirically examined the nature of the problem and its cause has arrived at the same overall conclusion: homelessness is generally synonymous with poverty.”

However, when confronted with a solution, people will do a switcheroo from a bloody optimist to a need for cynical phlegm. You were talking with happy-go-lucky “Regan”, saying that we all need to work together, and then her head spins and it’s “Pazuzu”, telling you that your idealism is foolish because the game is rigged, and the fix is in.

Well, why,” they ask, would you bring a solution to the table, when you know nobody really wants to solve the problem?

I don’t see it as clever,” I reply, “to think of this as a game that someone has to lose. Henry Ford is still the standard of clever. Post WWII United States is the standard. Anything short of that is the opposite of clever.

So long as we are in a celebratory humor, we may note that communities of tiny houses could be built into a system controlling the growth of tent-cities. We know from the ease with which folks build structures out of garbage, pallets and tarps that construction could be approached from the liver,” as has been said, something we could be sanguine about. We have artificial intelligence, amputees competing in Olympics, and robots landing on asteroids. We can build small houses!

The usual reasons offered for why we don’t have all fallen flat, proven to be untrue or just lazy hype. It is not more expensive. Developers do not lose money from smaller properties; in fact, the potential profit in smaller properties is obscene because buyers will tolerate higher commissions. It may be easier to sell one high-end property than ten middle-tier properties, but that is because we only build expensive houses! It turns out that a high-end market is dependent upon a dynamic low-end housing market. It is neither humorous, nor celebratory to have to explain that.

Everything about housing that needs to be said has been said before, and that certainly described this “team huddle”. Thirty people showed up, including our Member of Parliament, our Mayor, and representatives from our Regional District. I brought up the stats saying clearly that we don’t even see all of our homeless issue. Our government inter-agency coordinator backed up the stats and frontline experiences. Our seniors’ advocate said all that she had said a dozen times before, and the community leader actually said it out loud, “It’s the same conversation we’ve been having for twenty years.”

The representatives of the varying levels of government were positive and optimistic during the meeting. It was happy-go-lucky “Regan”, celebrating the spirit of cooperation, right up until someone suggested that we could act on these issues right away. Then it was all “Pazuzu”, claiming any action would be premature. One official said that, after so many years of studies, we must have enough intelligence to act, then did a double-backflip handspring, into a triple somersault walkback, landing badly to a position stating that we needed someone to go through all of those studies and summarize them into something coherent, prior to any action.

It was yet another “celebration” in which the experts and frontline workers were allowed to state the obvious and yet again sloughed off with suspiciously loud gratitude. “Thank you for your cheerleading!” When the Mayor announced that the housing strategy was to be released in six months, Dolores said, “Well, I think we can all agree that, after the year we’ve had, six months isn’t much to ask for. We can handle it.” Yes, the people who have secure housing will be fine. As always, Dolores’ dabbling had a bulimic bourgeois quality to it. After binging so heavily in joie de plebe, she would, no doubt, purge in secret to her friends.

Legendary BC pundit Rafe Mair once said that any politician worth their salary already knows what their commissioned report will say. I couldn’t help but wonder if she also knew. There is, after all, a vision in place.The meeting wrapped as always, with the tone-deaf commitment to more chin wagging.

I hope I can be forgiven if the cheery positivity is too cold-blooded for my liver. Mailer was recently informed that he could no longer be assisted with his motel room, so now it’s not certain where he is going to die. Humbert and family couldn’t move into a decent rental, and Highsmith and her son remain where they were.

A true symbol of the larger, national dialogue, our palaver was no “celebration” of successes because that would have drawn it into a discussion about what could be done. We could build enough housing to reduce homelessness, bring down rental prices, and boost the economy, so it turns out that I am the optimist. What will be done is as little as possible, allowing the crisis to broaden the already obvious distinctions between the wealthy and the poor. That is what the “Doloreses” of our world are protecting with their accusations of negativity. The jingle of dismissiveness—“Thanks for your cheerleading!”—that comes with the commitment to do no more than talk leaves a chill in my bones. It is time we acted on solutions, and all benefited from them. Let that be the standard of humor, cleverness and positivity by which we proceed, for it is that standard by which we shall know true richesse.

About the Author

Robert is a writer currently residing in the Kootenays. His writing is informed by his work and travels within his home province, British Columbia. When not working on his latest book, he also enjoys writing screenplays as well as amateur photography.

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