Monday, 23 July 2012

Do no harm

I have always wondered with a dollop of frustration why I keep seeing the same people in the meal lines, or in the basic services facilities. They keep coming for help- for free stuff- and never seemingly able to break from the cycle. Many of course are too incapacitated to ever expect them not to depend on services. For instance, there are the mentally ill, or the extremely poor and chronic homeless who justifiably requires basic services. Before I joined the Mustard Seed for the summer internship, I used to think that for the most part, the very poor and homeless were the main clients. Over time, I have noticed an interesting composition- besides the extremely poor and needy, the facility serves a large number of healthy, working individuals. These are the people who can certainly fend for themselves. It also serves many street dwellers who despite their conditions can periodically participate in the programs. Well! I could be naïve in my observation. Some individuals come for a free meal every single day in order to hang out with their friends, or they’re probably too busy during the day to be able to get their own meal.  But I also think, because the services are not selective in who uses them, they may possibly have created a dependency mentally on those it serves. A colleague actually told me; “you know why these people keep coming? Because we help them; we help them depend on us.” That statement was striking. In Africa, donor aid has done more harm than good by creating dependability instead of empowering. As a result, because the problems being addressed never end or at-least wane, donor fatigue sets in. When this happens, humanitarian projects die living poor people worse-off than they were prior to help.

It is possible to think of dependability as a phenomenon occurring when the rich nations try to help the poor countries. But, we only need to look at our local programs to assess if the same is not happening here. There is the likelihood of doing harm while trying to help. My aim is not to discredit inner city services, but to at least stir deeper questions of analysis. I think one of the ways we could dismantle dependability and reverse the harm is by beginning to involve the community in our services- a hands-together (participatory) rather than a hand-out approach. A friend of mine the other day told me something that struck me hard. These guys (alluding to the inner city dwellers) have learnt to survive in dangerous street environments. Most of us could not make a day in the roughness of the world they live in every day and night. They make it through unrelenting and unforgiving weather conditions: harsh winters and hot summers, torrential rains, battering winds, dark nights and scorching sunshine, under a tree, or shared accommodation. They survive through the threats of each other and of the elements; a tremendous display of the resilience of the human spirit. But what troubles me is that when they show up at our doors say for a meal or any other service, they appear weak and contemptible. They appear helpless and very much in need for help. Why haven’t we made them in our image- that of desire to participate in responding to their own needs? Don’t they seem capable of doing it on their own- of moving beyond visiting our facilities to sustaining themselves? Could our responses to their needs be doing more damage than good? Could we be failing to recognize the power in their spirits and to marshal it towards self-sustenance and participation? Could we be making out them a people who are so depended that despite their capacity, they will sit all day doing no meaningful activities waiting for meal times, drop-in and shelter hours?

Brian Fikkert in When helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself proposes the participation of the population in need. In the inner city context, this means enabling the people to participate in their own rehabilitation, recovery, and even exercise of stewardship as a process of reconciling relationships. The people could be involved in every aspect of the programs: from planning a meal, to shopping or sourcing for food, to helping with serving and clean up. When they do this and when they eat together, they feel thrilled and wanted. Participation deals with the notion of paternalism, they don’t feel we are superior and they are inferior. For this to truly happen, we have to trust their capacities if given a chance. Don’t they know too well how to be in need? We may be surprised by the creativity they bring to our programs: they may know something we don’t.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Of rights and being wronged

In April 2012 I had the privilege through the Micah Centre sponsorship of attending a social justice and human rights conference in Toronto. The Conference brought together scholars and practitioners in the area of social justice and human rights for both an intellectual discourse and sharing of practical experiences in the field. As I continue to interact with the poor, the homeless and those with other needs in  Edmonton inner city, I contemplate on some of the arguments made in the conference by Nicholas Wolterstorff (a keynote speaker). Wolsterstorff made the argument that by virtue of being human one is qualified to have certain rights. These rights come along with our state of humanness.  If therefore accessibility to the rights that humans qualify for is hindered, there is brokenness in the flow of justice. It could be argued that a society in which some members are denied these rights in whichever way is devoid of justice. The order of life should be structured in a way that each human is rendered his dues (justice) in accordance with his humanness. It follows that justice prevails as long as each is rendered the dues owed him because he is human.

Suppose then the individual in the state of poverty, homelessness, mental illness or any other need has been denied his dues, does that mean he does not have a right to life’s goods? No! He has the right; he just doesn’t enjoy the right because he can’t access it. Such a person has a right to good housing, a good job, health, to social amenities, to clean air and water, and to other ‘goods’ in life. Now, these goods are at our disposal and granted to everyone, but if one for some reasons does not access them, according to Wolterstorff, the person is wronged. One enjoys the right while another is wronged. In normative social relationships, Wolterstorff argues that it takes two to have a right and for justice to occur. The implication here is that to some degree, someone is responsible for the wrong wrought to others. The wrong may be that relationships and systems are broken thus barring others from accessing their rights. And the question I ask myself when I see poverty and struggles while at the same time I have access to life’s goods is how have I, how have we, how has society wronged the poor and the needy? And how can those wrongs be corrected? How can relationships be righted?

Sunday, 1 July 2012

‘Housing First’ as Justice Proper

Absolutely none of the people living on the streets of Edmonton inner city desires their condition. Out of various- in some cases- unforeseen reasons, many who had a stable life are now without shelter, a home and no means of getting back on their feet. I have in the last few weeks listened to women fleeing abusive relationships and finding themselves on the streets. For example, once I had a conversation with a young homeless lady who said she had escaped an abusive relationship, landed on the streets and started using drugs in order to cope. On this day, she had visited the Mustard Seed facility to pick some clothes; she insisted she wanted a nice dress and some makeup for these would make her feel good about herself. I have heard stories from men whose investment have gone awry and lost all of their possessions; people who could no longer afford to keep their homes as rental prices went up due to the booming Alberta economy and increased immigration to the province; individuals who turned to substance abuse as a means of escaping their harsh reality and consequently impacted negatively, some becoming completely dysfunctional and chronically homeless.
The causes of homelessness are many and complex. But the fact remains that the victims are humans with a tremendous desire to re-order their lives. One of the biggest steps for many is to find a home. However, while some inner city agencies have housing programs, there exist barriers to accessing them. One main condition is for the homeless person to have an income before he is admitted to a housing program. This is a huge impediment for the homelessness people; they openly voice their utter frustration with this requirement. On the other hand, for the homeless person to get a job he needs to have a physical address- the streets are physical but nevertheless not an address. The challenge is more complex for the drug users or the mentally ill homeless person whose capacity to get and retain a job has been seriously severed. What then ought to be the appropriate response to their needs?

While I admit no ‘one size fits all’ and that all possible immediate and long-term responses need to be explored, more permanent solutions to homelessness need to be accorded considerable attention. Such responses should not only be limited to intervening on current homelessness situations but also work to prevent homelessness in the first place. Where current homelessness is concerned, various responses are at work such us emergency shelters. I acknowledge these responses as needful particularly if the need is immediate and given that the person in need is capable of transitioning back to normal life. Then there is the low cost housing project which assumes a person’s ability to pay rent (he must show proof of employment) and must be ‘prepared’ that is, the individual has made efforts to fix himself before he’s put in a house.  The approach is based on the premise that treatment is a pre-requisite to housing for instance where drug addiction is the issue. It expects the person to be ‘house ready’- clean, sober, mentally stable and potentially able to get and sustain a job before he is moved to a permanent dwelling.  While it’s better to have a response with barriers than a response at all, I question the efficacy of the ‘house ready’ model. It may meet the needs of some, but it effectively cuts out a lot others because of all the pre-requisites. For this reason, the rate and the cost of homelessness continues to be high.

The intervention that I find more redeeming is the “house first” model. The intervention seeks to put the homeless person in a permanent home first, and then proceed to provide him with the necessary support services to facilitate recovery and transitioning to a self-sufficient life. The model is also an alternative to the systems of emergency shelters and transitional housing. Instead of moving the individual through ‘levels’ of housing where each level represents a closer movement to independent or permanent housing (say from the street to a shelter, to transitional housing program ,and then to own apartment), Housing First moves the individual straight from the streets or homeless shelters to their own house.

What makes it a better and viable model than the prevailing “house ready” first approach? I think that a home environment especially when it is one’s own brings a degree of stability that makes it possible for other needs to be attended to. Where addictions are concerned, apart from creating a facilitating environment for support providers to minister to the clients’ struggles with substance abuse, it enables the client to give attention to these needs and to submit to a recovery process with ease when he knows he has a permanent roof over his head. Where other needs are concerned such as unemployment, the client is able to focus his attention on addressing these needs.

Furthermore, when an individual is placed in a house as soon as possible, it reduces the amount of time that person has to spend being homeless while either accessing treatment or looking for a job. By contrast “house readiness” models would mean that the individual spends more time in their state of homelessness and further in their state of dysfunctionality. This in turn translates to lengthened periods of substance abuse and mental anguish, involvement in criminal activity, and obviously very minimal or no progress in recovering.

Housing First also recognizes housing as a basic human right and not a reward for conformity, recovery or clinical success. This is important because it reveals that the driving force of Housing First philosophy is recognition and observation of human worth, dignity and rights regardless of the dire state of being an individual is in. If individuals' basic rights are met, it becomes a significant step towards helping them better address other barriers, re-invigorate their potential, and re-position themselves not only on the path of healing and restoration, but also of achieving their potential. Individuals make this progress because they gain increased levels of motivation and self-confidence; but also because of community involvement towards their well-being.

Unemployment, homelessness, drug addictions and so on have to be addressed on the surface level (immediate interventions) as well as at a deeper level that constitutes systemic address. It seems to me that Housing First while responding to the immediate housing needs of homeless people in Edmonton also situates clients in a position in which the deeper causes of their homelessness can begin to be addressed.  This approach together with many other efforts weaves to produce a strand of hope for the broken in our society.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

An Elusive “Good Life” or Plainly Unjust System?

I have noticed albeit with concern high numbers of immigrants accessing the services of Edmonton inner city agencies such as free meals, the food bank, free clothing, shelters, and even subsidized housing programs. While varied reasons may be given for evident struggles among recent immigrants( 10 years and less) to Edmonton and to Canada as a whole, I think the biggest is the challenge of penetrating the job market. A few of the immigrants I have talked with confirm a common and even research backed fact that the pursuit of a good life abroad is increasingly becoming an elusive dream for most immigrants. For instance, unemployment rates are higher among recent immigrants compared to Canadian-born meaning that many are ending up in poverty or are experiencing other social and economic challenges. I am currently doing a research for a social policy research organization in Edmonton and focusing on underemployment among recent immigrants. The findings are shocking.

Canadian Immigration system aims at attracting highly educated and skilled workers to fill up the growing labour shortages as the working population grows old. Canada still remains one of the top choice countries for skilled professionals. However, the reality is different when they get here. Many arrive in Canada with the hope of a better life only to encounter systemic barriers to meaningful employment such as lack of recognition of foreign credentials, lack of Canadian job experience (whatever that means), perceived or real differences in foreign education and skills compared to domestic qualifications among a host of other barriers. As a result, majority of immigrants enter the job markets at low skill levels and in most cases remain trapped in these jobs. For instance, in 2006, 28% of recent immigrant men and 40% of women held jobs requiring low educational levels such as retail sales, clerks, truck drivers, taxi drivers, cleaners, cashiers, and office clerks.  This is a huge contrast to 10% and 12% of native-born Canadians who held the same jobs. Yet, over half of immigrants coming to Canada come under the skilled workers category which means they already have a post secondary education and several years of professional experience.

 A recent report titled “Who Drives Taxis in Canada” reported that of 255 medical professionals (mainly doctors) driving Taxis, 200 were immigrants who had practiced in their homelands. The irony of this scenario is magnified by the fact that Canada is in serious shortage of doctors. According to the Fraser Institute, “With only 2.3 doctors per 1,000 people in 2006 (age-adjusted), Canada’s physician-to-population ratio ranked 26th out of 28 developed nations that maintain a universal access health care system.” The situation is expected to grow worse. In the mean time, Ontario alone thinks that there are more than 4,000 immigrant doctors in the province prevented from practicing because their knowledge and skills may not measure up to Canadian standards. The Vancouver Sun reported in 2006 that “An estimated 3.6 million Canadians cannot find a family doctor, yet as many as 8, 000 immigrants trained and licensed abroad as physicians are not allowed to practice in Canada.” To complicate the matter, aside from the requirement for foreign doctors to complete a residency in Canada, the openings are so limited and expensive. On the other hand, an immigrant doctor will not get a license until he/she has a written job offer; yet, health authorities will not grant a job to a foreign doctor without a license. A typical catch-22 situation.

 I have read and listened to stories of scientists, lawyers and other highly trained professionals who out of no other choice are chronically trapped in jobs that are not commensurate with their skills levels and only requiring high school education. Examples include an environment scientist from West Africa who came to Canada in his 40s and worked for many years as an overnight security guard before finally getting certification to practice in his field, a doctor and health professional from Latin America who has worked and even retired as a cleaner, An engineer who wont get a job and has to rely on free meals for subsistence as he continues to look for a job in his field, and the list goes on and on. Talk of sheer brain waste. This trend may be one reason some immigrants are finding themselves forming the inner city poverty demographics in Edmonton and in other cities. It points to deeper issues of the system structure. It makes no sense for developed countries to have an immigration system that picks the best brains from poor and developing countries in the allure of promised good life only to have them completely underutilized and left to work many hours in low skill, low paying jobs in order to sustain themselves. Yet, even if the points system was to be re-evaluated and overturned, the society (especially employers) has to change its attitudes towards foreign qualifications. In any case, it’s because of these skills most immigrants are here in the first place.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Re-Imaging the Dignity of the Trashed: Lessons From “Waste Land”

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away- Henry David Thoreau

Garbage pickers in Jardim Gramacho, Brazil
 A while back, I watched “Waste Land,” a documentary which follows the renown Brooklyn based artist Vik Muniz on a visit to his native home of Brazil and in particular Jardim Gramacho, the world largest garbage dump-site on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Initially, Muniz plans to produce “photo” artwork of the catadores- the self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. These guys literally scavenge mountains of garbage everyday for recyclable materials which they sell for meager returns, health and safety risks notwithstanding.  The telling drama of his encounter with these poor but enthusiastic people is the collaborative relationship he enters with them throughout the project. Instead of assuming a paternalistic approach to their problem, he enlists them as partners and equal contributors to what turns out to be the most fascinating artistic outcomes from garbage material and the people who work in it. Under his guidance, the catadores recreate photographic images of themselves in an astounding demonstration of the transformative power of a re-kindled spirit. While the final work is sold and the proceeds given to their struggling co-operative union, it is the recovery and restoration of their trashed dignity that is most compelling. They find their lost dignity because they have been recognized, acknowledged, made participants and owners of the project, and not merely recipients of aid.

 Most responses to the needs of those impoverished are drafted without their involvement or even a thorough understanding of their needs. Picture with me if you can, a serious consultative, planning and project development team in an agency that focuses on the needs of the poor which comprises of the needy as members of the team. Such teams though rare could produce responses that do not only meet the poor people’s basic needs but goes beyond these to address their deeper problems in a dignifying manner.  While I fully applaud the work of the not-for-profit sector in responding to the needs of the poor, still, the poor do not feel as being part of the solution to their problem. In any case, others do it for them.  Their most immediate and visible needs may be met, but their dignity remains trashed. I think, involving the experts- the impoverished themselves- as partners in the programs could produce  more feasible outcomes  than when responses are shaped by a perceived understanding of  their needs. The one who helps and the one being helped will both be able to say, “we did it.” And this to me is more dignifying for the needy person than when he out of helplessness has no choice except to extend his hand daily for help or alternatively, grab it by force through criminal activities.