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Column:Mobile services effective option

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

My ears perk up whenever I hear Coun. Pat Lorje talk about the concentration of social service agencies in Saskatoon, because it is a very hard problem to fix once it has developed.
Social services tend to be located in poor areas of the city because that is where the need is. For many people, that is the end of the debate, but it’s more complicated than that. Those agencies are located there because of need and because real estate is cheap.
Despite the rhetoric of government, most see social services as an overhead cost, and if money can be saved by locating an agency in a less expensive part of town they will do it, nine times out of 10. For agencies not funded by the government, it is seen as a good stewardship of donations and resources to pay as little as possible for rent or a mortgage.
In Saskatchewan, the need is somewhat artificial because for years the province’s rental supplement has been geared toward accommodation that’s close to supports and services. It provides an incentive for people to live close to social agencies and concentrates poverty.
Once a critical mass of social agencies gets concentrated in one part of town, they tend to drive out other businesses and decrease property values even more. For people who depend on those services, it makes more sense to move to where cost of living is lower and close to where the services are provided. Of course, then you have more social service needs.
It’s an endless cycle that can do a lot of damage to the economic districts of some communities.
An interesting trend in a variety of cities over the last couple of years has been the creation of mobile social services, which are offered all across a city or region. Often these take the form of converted school buses or motorhomes, and provide such things as medical services (i.e. the Saskatoon Health Region’s health bus), as well as mobile showers in San Francisco and even a grocery store that’s driven to areas that do not have easy access to healthy food.
It’s not an new idea.
Libraries were doing this long before it was hip and trendy. I know many people who grew up in Saskatoon who can tell you when the Bookmobile came to their neighbourhood, and exactly where it stopped. It was by no means revolutionary, but it was part of community life.
Today we have the health bus. It doesn’t replace a hospital, but provides many services that one can access without going to a hospital. Being mobile, it can adjust its routes and schedule to meet people’s needs.
The advantages of mobility is that it allows the provision of services to neighbourhoods that need them, but aren’t within walking distance from the main location of a social agency. When many service agencies located in Riversdale, the area had some of the lowest rent and family incomes in Saskatoon. Redevelopment in Riversdale has significantly changed the neighbourhood.
The next place that could see big changes is Pleasant Hill, where the Junction development is slated to proceed. The impact that has seen real estate prices soar elsewhere is yet to be seen here, but the potential exists for affordable housing to move far away from the core and needed services.
There is a reason why studies in many cities show homeless people and those in extreme poverty will walk up to 20 kilometres a day to obtain food and shelter services. Even in Saskatoon, some of the most affordable living areas have almost no access to social services. Either rent eats up one’s food money and you can access services, or you have affordable rent and no access. For many it is a loselose situation.
Using outside-the-box ideas to use buses, local schools or faith-based organizations to deliver needed social services allows agencies and the government to meet needs inexpensively, while having a minimal impact on a local community.
Not only are the startup funds needed for such programs relatively small – one community recently made a significant dent in its food desert with a $100,000 bus – but it is temporary. If a grocery store comes in and wants to build in the neighbourhood it can, and the bus rolls out to another section of town. It can create markets, not kill them.
Without a long-term investment in a property, these programs can also be suited to economic conditions.
Saskatoon is changing.
With that comes the need for the province and city to adapt to how they deliver services in a way that helps people and minimizes the impact on the neighbourhoods where they live.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

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