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A look at Riversdale: Introduction

Far too long ago, I planned to write a series of articles on life in the inner city for this blog.  I wrote a background piece to why I care about the topic and I had hoped to publish an article every week or so.  What I found is that the more I wrote, the more questions I had and the more interconnected the problems and solutions are.  In the last couple of months I have read thousands of pages on urban planning, poverty, crime, gangs, drugs, and prostitution.  I sat in on the Salvation Army’s John School and found myself weeping at the stories of lost girls, women being beaten, and angered by the impact of johns stalking a neighbourhood (it’s happening in my neighbourhood as well right now).  As odd as it has been, I have also found myself walking through Riversdale, talking to guys I know down there, hearing stories, and just chilling out down there.

On top of that, Dave Hutton’s article on the concentration of services in Riversdale a couple of months ago has been the ice breaker in every meeting I have had over since it came out.  Both City Councillor Pat Lorje and Riversdale Business Improvement District’s Randy Pshebylo where effective in bringing up the topic in a variety of interviews over a couple of weeks and in my circles, it generated a lot of debate and discussion.   Shortly after the article came out, I had a chance to talk with Councillor Lorje and Mr. Pshebylo at The Salvation Army Community Services open house we met with them at work later on to talk more about the topic.  After talking with both of them, Councillor Lorje gave me a couple of more articles and papers on homelessness and urban planning which gave me more to read.  I spent a couple of weeks at the cabin reading them and other material and had to endure being called a nerd more than once when people saw what I was reading on holidays (when I said that I was reading Bob Woodward’s The War Within as well, their viewpoint wasn’t changed).  I have a lot of respect for both Lorje and Pshebylo.  Both of them have contributed a lot to the life of the city and they brought up a lot of good points.  Yet at the same time their solution seemed incomplete to me and I wanted to spend some time thinking it over.  Those thoughts, ideas, rebuttals and replies started to get written down and will be posted here in pieces over the next month.  If you miss something, don’t worry, I will be linking to each piece at the end of each post. 

As to where to start, I thought I would offer my initial thoughts on part of Dave Hutton’s Star Phoenix article.

I still remember the morning the article came out.  We get a couple of Star Phoenix’s delivered each morning (by the world’s bravest paper kid) to work and I normally wander in, check out the log books, chat with staff, and read the paper.  Since we have more staff right now than normal with the training of staff for the much delayed Mumford House, I now read The Star Phoenix online in my office over coffee.  By the time I got to my office my e-mail and voice mail were flooded with people asking me “did you see what Pat Lorje said about you?”  Well know I hadn’t and I went online to see what was up.  The entire article is worth a read.  You can read the article here.

The overabundance of support agencies for poor and homeless people concentrated in Riversdale needs to be addressed in what the city councillor for the area is calling "solution by dilution."

"The simple fact is that the status quo is not working," Coun. Pat Lorje said in an interview. "We need to think about alternative models."

Many of the city’s social supports for homeless people are concentrated in the area, trapping people in negative lifestyles, Lorje said. The result is the creation of a society unto itself, from which it is harder to pull people out because they are exposed to more intense levels of the forces that cause, and keep, people homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol, Lorje said.

Consolidating existing services and spreading support agencies throughout the city would help, she said.

"The issue is not just poverty," she said. "It’s the concentration of poverty."

Lorje is backed on the issue by the executive director of the Riversdale Business Improvement District. Randy Pshebylo says the burden of helping the homeless and drug-addicted needs to be shared by other neighbourhoods.

The concentration of any one thing — be it bars and pubs, pawn shops, retail stores, restaurants or social organizations — diminishes the strength of any neighbourhood, Pshebylo said.

Missions and soup kitchens are better suited for the avenues adjacent to 20th Street than the main business strip, he said.

"We just want an equitable neighbourhood," he said. "You don’t put your sink in your living room."

Lorje isn’t calling for a moratorium or freeze on social organizations in Riversdale — a step taken by other impoverished neighbourhoods in Canada and the U.S. — but said there needs to be less overlap.

"I would encourage organizations and church groups to start consolidating their services," she said. "It’s not a competition to see who can do it best, it should be co-operation to see who can do it most effectively to get people off the street."

The part of the article that jumped out me was this.

Many of the city’s social supports for homeless people are concentrated in the area, trapping people in negative lifestyles, Lorje said. The result is the creation of a society unto itself, from which it is harder to pull people out because they are exposed to more intense levels of the forces that cause, and keep, people homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol, Lorje said.

It’s a frustrating quote to read.  We fight against the culture of drugs and alcohol everyday at the Centre.  We do everything we can to help people move on from the lifestyle.  Since the housing boom and the rental increases took hold and our length of stays increased, we have done a lot to help guys get “unstuck”.  We have added two full time caseworkers to help clients who don’t have a plan to find safe and sustainable housing to get one.  Than we provide follow up as they overcome their barriers to housing.  Once they are ready to move out, we provide them with household goods, help them set up an apartment, and provide support when they are out (if needed).

In addition to that, we have always taken a tough stand against drugs and alcohol abuse and it has never been popular with clients, parents, other social agencies.  As a staff, we pay a cost for that stand.  I have had the lug nuts loosened on my Honda Accord, windows smashed, clients who have tracked down where I lived and had my son’s life threatened.   Having my own life threatened is so routine that my response is often flippant.   We had to taxi a staff member to and from work for months because of the severity of the threat against him (and honestly, he was just sitting beside me having a cup of cold coffee when the guy threatened him).  We pay a lot of money for evidentiary breathalyzers (and the literally thousands of tips we go through a year), we don’t take in guys who are still actively using and have banned known drug dealers (who have moved down the street from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where they pick off people who are heading to the meeting), we have drug tests to help us determine drug use and the best course of action for our clients, as well as non stop bag checks, room inspections, and even the occasional police dog wandering through and yet it seems like there is a bigger problem with drug use then there was ever before and not just in Riversdale (see my post on this from December 2009).

So yes, Councillor Lorje is totally right, there is a culture of drug and alcohol abuse.  The question I have is whether or not the homeless shelters and social agencies contributing to it.  That’s an incredibly hard question to answer.  The more I read about the problem, the more I was convinced that the problems in Riversdale (and other urban cores) were being over simplified.  Yes there is a problem with the concentration of services in Riversdale but it’s a lot bigger than that.  As I have been mulling the issues that affect Riversdale and other urban areas, the more I kept thinking of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book The Ingenuity Gap.  In it Homer-Dixon writes that the world’s problems are escaping our abilities to manage them.  As problems grow in complexity, so the solutions.  When I was a kid, there was always problems in Riversdale.  You could always see a drunk or two outside the Albany or the Barry Hotels.  Now there is the booze, the moonshine, the drugs, the theft, the prostitution, the gangs, the guys with untreated mental health issues, those struggling with all of it and it is concentrated in one part of the city.  The question is why and what do can do you about it?

So the plan is to first look at the problem and it’s interconnectedness.  After that, I’ll head back to what I see are the solutions.  Tomorrow we take a longer look of concentration of services in Riversdale and try to figure out their role in all of this.

7 Comments

  1. Sean S. says:

    A great start Jordon. I look forward to the next pieces.

    The one thought that popped into my head (as it did when i first read the SP article you extensively quote) was something along the lines of this:

    Is there not a direct link between the increase in the concentration of poverty and social ills in Riversdale and surrounding areas and the rising house prices?

    While I can agree on some level that Riversdale isn’t benefited by having such a high degree of social services located within its boundaries, where else would you put it? Are we suggesting setting up a Salvation Army in Willowgrove (I know, extreme example but I think it goes to my point)? How would this help the concentration of poverty in Riversdale?

    Anyhow, I know it is a far more complex problem then that and the simplified solutions are not the ones that will work. I honestly don’t know what those solutions are or how they should be implemented….

    There, I’ve just spun myself into the ground!

    Anyhow, great post.

  2. I am going to hit on all of that later on. Housing prices are killing people in Riversdale now and the rental supplement is keeping people there (it is proximity based) which is a big problem.

    As far as the Salvation Army in Willowgrove, that has been a standing joke (of course people in Willowgrove won’t find it so funny) around work but there are some ways to locate services that will help instead of hurt communities. More will go online tomorrow and over the next couple of weeks.

  3. Norm Fisher says:

    While the cost of housing has risen to difficult levels right across Canada, Saskatchewan took the largest hit between 2006 and 2008 when the price of a home here nearly doubled. According to some, we went from one of the most affordable markets in the world to one of the least affordable in Canada. As you know, market rents followed the same curve. Everyone who doesn’t already own a home has been impacted, but of course, those with the least have been affected the most.

    I don’t know what the answer is but affordable housing initiatives need to continue to be a focus of our community. A person has little chance of beating addictions without a safe place to live.

  4. Bert Lang says:

    The reason services are concentrated in Riversdale is that the clients are concentrated in Riversdale. Putting significant resources outside of the immediate area will simply make them inaccessabe for the clients who need them most. If it is really so bad to have poor people living in poor areas, someone (the city or province) must sponsor appropriate housing in other places. Meanwhile we (the agencies) try to assist clients to escape the cycle that is embedded in this community, WHERE WE ARE ALREADY LOCATED

  5. george says:

    The answer Jordon is Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. When we come to know Him everything changes. When the poor, the addicted, the alcoholic, the rich, the whoever comes to know Jesus, comes to have new life in Him, everything changes. That is everything Jordan, without Him, the situation is going to continue to get worse, where you are and wherever. It’s so clear, so evident.

    God’s people got to get right with Him and call out to Him in Jesus name and He will do great things. He’s doing it man, and He will do it there if God’s people will do their part. Seek God

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