Saskatoon has been in an uproar over the suggestion the city spend $40,000 to remove the benches in the vicinity of the McDonald’s restaurant on Second Avenue and 22nd Street because people are loitering there all day.
Police officers and business owners with whom I have spoken have real concerns about the street corner. I have seen a couple of drug deals take place there, and there have been reports of violence and harassment of passersby.
Both the police and the Community Support Officers have done some good work to try to manage the problem. Over many lunch hours I have seen a police officer standing there. When the McDonald’s on Second Avenue becomes a police beat, it may be time to do something.
The problem with removing the benches is that it doesn’t accomplish what it is intended to do. I have gone into that McDonald’s over many lunches (Don’t tell my wife. She sent me to work with a salad). The staff is courteous and polite, and McDonald’s provides free coffee refills and sells a lot of soda for $1.
The combination of a friendly staff, free coffee, cheap soda and a centralized location where people can come to meet their friends have turned the restaurant into a downtown drop-in centre. I know people who come from miles away to meet their friends there daily. I am pretty sure that is not the business plan McDonald’s intended.
When you toss in the low fence in the neighbouring parking lot, the location lends itself to loitering. The solution isn’t to remove the benches, or to legislate behaviour. Other cities have learned it doesn’t work. Toronto has given out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to the poor and homeless. Numerous American cities have banned people from sitting on the sidewalks. Denver has made it illegal to be homeless by banning urban camping.
It’s the wrong approach. When you have nothing, what is the deterrent effect of a fine? Toronto’s inability to collect any of those fines shows that its policy is a huge failure.
The solution is to deal with the real issue. There are people in Saskatoon who are so far below the poverty line that to them, simple poverty looks like a welcome step up. Many are getting less in social assistance for rent than what their rent costs. Part of their rent has to come out of their living allowance – money that is supposed to be for food.
When people have very little, they at least want to be around their friends. These groups self-organize and find a place to meet. In this case it has become the downtown restaurant. Getting rid of the benches or even the entire McDonald’s won’t change that. They will organize and find somewhere else to meet.
Do we get rid of the benches on 21st Street or shut down the food court at the Midtown Plaza next?
Other growing cities have adopted drop-in centres. It’s not a new concept, as we have had them for youth and teens for decades. This needs to happen downtown for adults. An agency needs to step up and work with the city and downtown neighbours to create a space where people want to come, and at the same time works for neighbouring businesses. It isn’t easy, but as I have seen in visiting great drop-ins from coast to coast, it is possible to find that balance.
It takes a place where people can be warm on cold days, cool on hot days, and have something to drink, a bite to eat, and even some Internet access. From what we have learned in Saskatoon, cheap pop, coffee and hamburgers seem to be the formula people want. Just make sure they have a chance to meet their friends there.
Saskatoon has a downtown full of energy. People want to work, socialize and play there. We all want to be where the action is, regardless of our income. Other cities have learned that drop-in services need to be downtown, because that is where the people are going to congregate.
While this is a local problem, it’s also a reflection of provincial policies. Social Services needs to move beyond merely writing cheques and realize that it has a role to play in issues like this in cities and towns across Saskatchewan.
It was encouraging to see city council’s planning and operations committee look beyond the easy solution and realize there are much more complicated factors at play. Let’s see if council and the provincial government have the political will to address them.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
My column in yesterday’s The StarPhoenix (not breaking a lot of news around here today)
In late March, the international aid organization World Vision released a report titled Poverty at Your Doorsteps, which looked at poverty in five major Canadian cities to see how they recovered after the recent global recession.
The report observes a growing economic disparity between the rich and poor in Canada. Poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated among singles, young adults, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and persons with disabilities. These findings have been documented in other national and local reports, including Saskatoon’s own housing business plan.
To compare cities is difficult, as they all have different economic contexts. Even cities as close geographically as Hamilton and Toronto have different fundamentals that drive growth and shape their employment.
However, despite their differences, there is a common thread in each of the five cities. It’s the lack of affordable housing – something that we struggle with in Saskatoon, as well.
According to Statistics Canada, incomes in Saskatoon have grown on average by $12,000 per household since 2006, which is above the national average. The problem for many is that the average house price in our city has risen to around $340,000 during that time, or by more than $150,000.
The statistics are medians that don’t tell the whole story, but it is a trend that affects many people.
Those who work outside the skilled trades or the resource sector have had a tough time, as their wages have not grown at the same rate. Not surprisingly, the Saskatoon Food Bank reported in 2011 that it had 64,930 hamper requests from families, representing 87,963 adults and 64,908 children. The rent has to come from somewhere.
What’s most frustrating is that this problem exists because of the prosperity. It’s not a failure of economic policies but the result of good ones. The better our economy performs, the greater the number of people who move here and the higher the real estate prices rise. More people are left behind because of skyrocketing rents.
If city hall prognosticators are correct in their growth forecasts, and Saskatoon grows to be a city of a half million people in the next 30 years, the lack of affordable housing is a problem that won’t go away.
Despite housing traditionally being a provincial responsibility, the city is doing a lot on this front. It provides housing grants to help people afford their first house, offers grants for affordable housing units across the spectrum of needs, and has gifted parcels of land for projects.
Saskatoon does more than any other city in Canada to make housing affordable. We are a model for all other municipalities, but still aren’t getting ahead. Waiting lists for affordable housing continue to grow.
It’s tough to determine how effective the city’s efforts have been, but compared to Regina whose apartment vacancy rate in 2012 was a minuscule 0.6 per cent rather than Saskatoon’s really low rate of 3.1 per cent, those efforts can be termed successful.
There is a limit to what a city or province can do. Canada is one of few developed countries that doesn’t have a national housing strategy.
Our federal government played a role in national housing policy since the Second World War. For good and for bad, it played a large role in urban affairs and housing into the 1980s. However, since the end of the Trudeau government in 1984, no government has really wanted to tackle housing in Canada.
By the time 1993 came along, the feds got out of housing altogether to focus on the deficit, and left the responsibility with the provinces and cities.
The loss wasn’t felt immediately. The glut of rental properties in most cities had both the units and the rates to absorb new tenants. It’s hard to believe that in the 1980s one could rent an apartment in Saskatoon and get one or two rent-free months each year. Those days are long gone.
With population growth and widening economic disparity, it is time for another national housing strategy that can support local needs while avoiding some of the mistakes of the past. Saskatoon and the province have made some significant progress, but this is a national issue.
The gap between wages and rent is growing. Unaffordable rents and huge mortgages are not a strategy and, until we have one, the problem won’t be solved. The best way to help the working poor get ahead is to provide them with affordable shelter. To make this happen is going to take all three levels of government.
It’s time for Ottawa to step up again.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
If you happened to have watched the discussions during last week’s city council meeting about snow removal and business taxes in Saskatoon, you would have left with a clear impression: The city is having a hard time paying for basic services.
Lost in the rhetoric over how hard city crews work and how bad was the winter is a simple fact. Council voted against residential snow removal last fall, which created this mess in the first place. Even last week there were news stories about impassable streets.
The reason that councillors voted against residential snow removal was to keep property taxes as low as possible. As the city has proudly proclaimed for years, Saskatoon has the lowest property taxes in Canada among cities of a similar size.
That’s great if you hate taxes. But it’s bad news if you have to pay for things. With taxes this low, you will always have problems with paying for essential services.
If we are going to be the city of the lowest taxes, we will be the city of no snow removal, constant potholes and inferior public transit, because all of those services cost money. We have to cut costs somewhere, and we have cut them on snow removal and on road repair.
We underfund our road maintenance by more than $12 million a year, and that is just to keep our streets at their current levels. To actually repair and upgrade them would cost much more. Instead of paving roads, we patch them, which allows for moisture penetration. With the freeze-thaw cycle that faces Saskatoon regularly, our streets will continue to fail.
To its credit, council has increased spending on road repair, so by 2020 we will have almost reached the levels needed to keep our streets at 2012 levels. By that time the city will need even more money for road repairs, even if the streets are gravel.
Of course we can raise taxes. However, the problem is that once you go on and on about how low your taxes are, it’s really difficult to back away from that. We can talk all we want about wanting to be a world-class city, but you never judge a government by what it says so much as where it spends its money. In Saskatoon’s case, it’s not enough even to maintain our essential services.
There are two ways to deal with this.
One is to cut back more services and get out of a lot of what the city does, such as affordable housing, building parks and funding art galleries. The focus will be solely on roads, snow removal, emergency services and utilities such as garbage pickup.
This approach provides a great value for those that don’t need social services or amenities. They get lower taxes with no noticeable impact on their life in the city. It’s a blueprint that a lot of American cities have adopted. The problem is that no one wants to live or work in those cities once the boom is over.
The other option is to do what Edmonton’s city council just did. It adopted a report titled, The Way We Prosper, which made it clear that the old way using low taxes to attract business isn’t working.
Competitive taxes are important, but they are only a piece of the puzzle. Issues such as building a livable city and integrating Edmonton’s economic development agencies in a better way were listed as higher priorities.
Cities grow because of external market forces. More important than low taxes are the commodity prices that are driving our economy. If these prices bottom out, there is little that low tax rates will do to keep or attract businesses.
On the flip side, companies and people aren’t coming to Saskatoon because of low taxes on properties and businesses. They are coming because Saskatoon is a gateway to a whole lot of prosperity.
For all of Saskatoon’s aspirations of becoming a world-class city, we aren’t even raising enough money to maintain the city we have. Pat Hyde, manager of the city’s public works branch, announced last week that this will be the worst year ever for potholes.
When you don’t bring in enough money to maintain and clear streets, it’s going to be this bad for a lot of years.
There is a reason why our taxes are so low compared to other cities. Those cities know they can’t maintain their assets and provide services at the tax rates the city is charging.
This paper has called for an alternative to property taxes to fund civic services. Until that happens, we need to start charging more unless we want to see a further deterioration in the state of Saskatoon’s infrastructure. It’s a bill that needs to be paid sometime. As much as we hate it, it will require the payment of higher taxes.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
The mayor is off on a trade mission to China. SREDA points out that they are paying for the mayor’s portion of the trip which is true.
SREDA and the Mayor’s press release fail to point out that the major portion of SREDA’s funding comes from…. wait for it… the City of Saskatoon. It includes three members of city council on its board of directors as a result.
To be honest, I don’t care of the city pays for Mayor Atchison’s trip to China or not. He’s a good salesperson and networker and will do a good job in representing the City of Saskatoon and it’s business interests but it bugs me that we play these games instead of coming out and just saying what is going on. Taxpayers are paying for part of the trip.
Of course in the process of answering Jennifer Quesnel’s questions about the trip, SREDA CEO said this. Someone needs to let SREDA know that as a partially taxpayer funded organization, people are going to care how that money is spent.
It’s a question cities throughout Western Canada have been grappling with for decades: does new development pay for itself ? Does the city spend more money servicing new neighbourhoods than it collects from the developers who buy the lots and build houses?
A new report released by Saskatoon civic administrators that says not all costs of new suburban development are paid for by the service rates charged to developers is stirring up the debate.
“Most of the direct services – most of the capital costs to build a neighbourhood – are included in the overall developers’ fees, but there are a number things that are not covered like leisure centres and fire halls and other things,” said Randy Grauer, Saskatoon’s acting city manager.
Some cities, such as Calgary, have decided to dramatically increase development levies. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says it’s an attempt to recoup the real cost of growth.
Some planners in Saskatoon say the same model should be considered here as the city’s population continues to grow at a rapid pace.
“The city has been encouraging developers to go develop on the outskirts, and now we are paying for it because we cannot afford to maintain the infrastructure,” said Avi Akkerman, a professor of regional and urban planning at the University of Saskatchewan.
“Everything that is associated with it is unsustainable.”
Of course developers disagree
“The new areas are paying a large portion of the tax burden,” said local developer Ron Olson, a former president the Canadian Home Builders Association. “The new areas are subsidizing the older neighbourhoods.”
Olson said city planners have to be careful not to “drink the Kool-Aid on this densification.” Restricting development on the outer edges of the city will only force young families to move outside the city – to places like Warman and Martensville – where they can find more housing choices.
“Calgary is a prime example of what we are talking about. The mayor has decided that new growth and suburban growth is a bad thing, and that kind of policy is regressive. You will have a bunch of satellites around Calgary, and those satellites are because young people want to live in single family homes,” Olson said.
Actually I would challenge Ron Olson’s assertions about Calgary. I would suggest that the Calgary satellite communities have everything to do with house price than a desire to live in single family homes. The farther you are away from Calgary (or Saskatoon), the less access you have to amenities and then less you have to pay for housing.
Of course the other point is that it isn’t about housing, it is about the cities ability to pay for sprawling infrastructure. It’s weird but some still see libertarian values as something that needs to be met, even in the city.
More than 100,000 churches and parishes across North America have closed their doors over the past decade. Entire denominations have disappeared or have had to merge to survive.
Despite being part of the Bible belt, Saskatoon, too, has been affected by the cultural shift away from Christianity, and we see in the decline the eventual closure of Third Avenue United Church.
The church been a part of the fabric of Saskatoon for almost a century. Its English Gothic architecture has been acclaimed since it was built. At the time, University of Saskatchewan president Walter Murray called the new building, “The first permanent home of religion in Saskatoon.”
Most churches have a life cycle. They are started, grow, mature and then die. With populations shifting to the suburbs, the lack of parking and the changing role of faith in our communities, many churches in downtown areas are struggling to survive.
There are very few examples of a local church being vibrant on its centennial, because many don’t make it that long. In most cases, tears are shed, stories told and the church is closed and sold. That money is invested in new churches and in projects the denomination see as desirable.
That is the path taken by the River Bend Presbytery. Selling the Third Avenue Church will give it the money to invest elsewhere.
The problem is that the loss of the downtown church would be a net loss to Saskatoon. This isn’t just another building. The Third Avenue United Church has legendary acoustical properties and rivals theatres across Canada as a great performance space.
Its capacity fills a niche in Saskatoon as it is larger than the Broadway and Roxy theatres, while at 1,100 seats, it’s smaller than TCU Place. It adds to the city without competing with other performance spaces.
The Third Avenue Centre, a non-profit group that wants to turn the church into a performing arts centre, has made a proposal to the congregation and the presbytery.
The congregation approved the proposal, but the presbytery disagreed and instructed church officials to send it back on to the market for other bids.
As other cities have taught us, when such facilities hit the open market, they can be lost to the community forever. Some communities have learned the lesson and are converting similar buildings to concert halls and performance spaces because of the value they offer a city.
The market for old cathedrals is traditionally soft.
Organizations can buy and convert them for far less than building a replacement.
Once the Third Avenue church is lost, we will never be able to replace it. There is a reason we don’t build facilities like it anymore: It’s too expensive. Its stonework alone would cost approximately $39 million to replace.
Councillor Darren Hill told The StarPhoenix, “I don’t think it’s the city’s position to get involved in the decision making of the presbytery. That is not our role. But if there is the opportunity to strengthen a bid or a proposal to protect the integrity of the church as a performing arts centre, that’s where we need to come in.”
While Hill is calling on the city to intervene, an even better solution would be for Saskatoon’s corporate and philanthropic community to step up and invest in the next century of performing arts in Saskatoon. It would be a timeless investment in both the arts and in Saskatoon as a whole.
Looking at similar and older cathedrals across Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe, there are countless generations of use left in the Third Avenue building if we are willing to invest in it before it is too late.
Saskatoon would not be alone in doing this. Several cities across Canada have stepped in to transform old churches into performance spaces. Some have allowed the congregation to continue to meet in the space – a solution that would work well here.
As builders and trustees of Third Avenue United Church for a century, it makes sense to give congregation members a home as it moves into its next phase of life as a building.
The congregation got us this far. Now it’s up to us as a city to step up and figure out what’s next. We had the vision to add a world-class art gallery downtown.
Now we need to figure out where a world-class concert hall fits in. This opportunity presents itself only once and, if we seize it, the result will be enjoyed by generations to come.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
Nerdist – which itself has expanded from its humble origins to include a premium content YouTube channel, podcast offshoots and a cross-platform newsletter, Nerdist News – is a logical extension of a not-so-radical concept: A talk show about nerd culture hosted by and featuring people who actually know what they’re talking about.
Nerdist podcast topics draw on everything and everyone from MythBusters star Adam Savage to Clerks and Silent Bob filmmaker, Comic Book Men TV impresario and unapologetic fan-boy Kevin Smith.
Nerdist Podcast ranked No. 3 in a recent Rolling Stone list of the 10 best comedy podcasts of the moment. Guests over the years – Nerdist Podcast bowed in February 2010 – have ranged from comics maestro Stan Lee and TV actors Jeri Ryan and Drew Carey to rocker Ozzy Osbourne and cast members from Doctor Who, Community and Star Trek: The Next Generation, among other similarly styled shows.
Hardwick considers himself a Doctor Who evangelist, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Nerdist’s TV debut coincides with the return of Doctor Who’s seventh season in the U.S. and Canada later this month.
Hardwick fell into Nerdist Podcast almost by accident. He was a struggling standup comic at the time. He had a hard time finding bookings and filing comedy clubs. No one knew who he was, or what his comedy involved. Podcasting seemed a natural way to spread the word.
“Podcasting is a survival mechanism,” Hardwick explained, earlier this year in Los Angeles. “As starting comedians, we need a way to express ourselves in public in a way that tells them this is who we are, this is what we’re about, these are the things we want to talk about. Podcasts have become the comedy albums of today.
“When I was a kid, you’d listen to the same comedy album 20, 30, 50 times. Today, we’re spoiled as consumers. We’re like, ‘More! More!’ Podcasts provide that for people. They’re like a nonstop comedy album.”
From The StarPhoenix’s blog. A note from the giant icicle before it was torn down. Luckily Jeremy Warren was there to get the story.
You must know a few things before they hack me apart and I melt into your memories. First, stop calling me an icicle. I’m more of an ice wall, no? You’ve seen the photos by now. My elegant curves run from the top of the apartment to the ground. I hang for no one.
Second, WHY? Why must you destroy me? There are more perilous icicles hovering above Saskatoon sidewalks and apartments, and yet it’s my ice on the firing line. I blame the media spotlight. Its hot glare is not good for my kind.
One afternoon I’m at home — in my case it’s just a wall but it’s still home — and a reporter comes around, lets neighbours talk garbage about me and then publishes a story accusing me of threatening innocent citizens. Did I get an interview? I was not asked for my side of the story. I got the cold shoulder.
But that’s how we are treated, my frozen friends and I. How many of you have snapped an icicle hanging from your windows and trucks? Those are our children cut down in their prime. This is ice-ism.
I am not an old soul, but my young ice age has provided some insight into this world. Stuck to the same spot for months, I can’t help but notice the best and worst of you. I watched a young couple fight on the street, a blizzard of pent up resentment blowing between them. I watched two teens rush to the aid of an old man who slipped on the icy sidewalk. A microcosm of humanity has passed before me and I came to love you. Now you’re all left cold to my pleas of mercy.
I will likely die today. Think of me when you slip on your skates. Think of me when you drop a few ice cubes in your warm cola. I did nothing wrong and I am being punished. Justice is blind and maybe that’s why she moves at a such a glacial pace.
As the city prepares to develop the north downtown and aspires to make significant progress toward Mayor Don Atchison’s plan of having 15,000 people live downtown, it also has the opportunity to deal with another problem: Making Saskatoon a lot more affordable place to live.
A recent StarPhoenix story quoted lobbyist Wendell Cox of Demographia saying Saskatoon is among the least affordable cities in Canada.
This might be an expensive place to live, but I am not sure that I agree with Cox’s idea that we can sprawl until we hit mountains. Unlike Cox, I don’t lobby for the auto industry, or oppose the expansion of public transit.
His point is valid that densification of cities drives up property values and home prices. There come to be more amenities as more people move in, and people pay more to be close to the things they love. If you doubt me, check out the housing prices in Nutana near the Broadway business area. You pay more to live on or near a great street or urban village.
With a north downtown plan that will bring more people and more companies to the area, the same thing will happen to housing prices there. People will pay more to live close to work and play, and it’s already being reflected in rising prices in City Park, Caswell Hill and, more recently, Riversdale. This will only intensify when there are more people downtown. We all expect better transit, more restaurants and maybe even food trucks.
In many cities, the market dictates the most expensive kind of housing or condos that are created.
The result is that high-end condos win out, which is great for developers and owners. The wealth in the city centre also adds to the downtown street life and culture.
Where the market fails is in producing the lower-end rental suites that make a city affordable to live, and to a degree puts some downward pressure on the market. As a city grows more prosperous, these kind of bachelor and single-bedroom suites become more scarce.
The economic result is that it hurts a city’s creative and startup culture. It also hurts the very businesses that move into a downtown core because it’s hard to retain staff who can’t afford the commute. I see that when I find myself in an unaffordable city centre where there are a surprising number of “help wanted” signs, even in a poor job market.
When staff can’t easily get to their jobs, they quit when they find something closer to home. We see that happening even in Saskatoon. Why commute downtown when you can find work within walking distance?
There are ways to deal with this.
Mississauga, Ont., just built a massive and ugly affordable housing project that has created such an outcry that the city is looking at how to fix what it has done. One councillor called the project an “industrial prison.”
It’s spacious housing, but no one is ever going to want to call it a home. Like most such large-scale projects, this one won’t age well and will be part of the problem within a couple of decades.
The other approach being taken in some other cities with a dearth of affordable apartments is to start building micro apartments which cost less but are still of good quality. These are 270-to 350-square-foot suites at an affordable price. Having seen videos of a 78-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, the 270-squarefoot ones look like an expansive ranch house and are the size of many bachelor suites in Saskatoon.
While such a micro suite would be cramped to hold a decent Super Bowl party this weekend, it could provide the essentials of life at an affordable price. Half of Saskatchewan’s residents say they spend less on groceries in order to make the rent payment. This changes that.
By going small instead of low quality, micro suites provide affordable housing without competing against other types of housing, and are targeted at single people who often are overlooked.
Such housing allows artists, fledgling entrepreneurs and low-income earners a chance to live and get ahead.
If we don’t have this kind of creative housing, we risk missing out on the next wave – whether that be the arts or the birth of a new industry. Other cities have made this mistake and have paid for it.
Developing the north downtown could be as big for Saskatoon as River Landing. We all know there will be some amazing spaces built there, but let’s also hope there are some amazing and affordable spaces being built as well, even if they are on the small side.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
As chosen by their photographer Gord Waldner. My favourite from his favourites is this one. It just seemed to sum up 2012 around Saskatoon.
Last week the Internet news site iPolitics reported that Iwan Zinger, the executive director of the Office of Correctional Investigations, raised a series of concerns about the double bunking of federal offenders in federal penitentiaries.
Since June 2010, inmates being held in segregation in Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain Penitentiary have been double bunked despite being confined to their cells for 23 hours a day.
In a related story, iPolitics reported that in Prince Albert inmates are being double bunked in a prison cell that is less than five-square metres.
It’s been a long-standing practice with Correctional Services to avoid double bunking. Zinger pointed out in a memo he wrote to correctional officials that Canada has long endorsed the United National Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which calls for one inmate per prison cell.
Correctional Service responded to the letter with concern, but double bunking has been on the increase for the last couple of years anyway. As far back as August 2010, CSC has posted policy notes on its website that loosen the rules for double bunking.
For the foreseeable future, however, the policy seems to be here to stay. There is an increasing number of inmates being double bunked in cells designed for a single person. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has indicated he is content with double bunking in spite of the 1,700 new cells being added to the system.
Western Canada sees the highest rate of double bunking, at about one in five inmates. As can be expected, the increased crowding leads to other problems.
In prison, it leads to a higher rate of violence and public-health problems such as the spread of infectious diseases. It also makes rehabilitation more difficult as we are housing inmates in unsafe prisons that are not designed to hold that many people.
While it may be physically possible to hold a higher number of prisoners they eventually get released, and that’s when the real problems start.
The American practice of building supermax prisons generated a lot of attention when they were opened. They were super secure for the system’s most dangerous criminals. As the reinvention of places like Alcatraz, they held prisoners such as the notorious mob boss John Gotti.
They did an amazing job of segregating inmates and stopping violence. Their failure was that some who were housed there were not given life sentences and like most offenders in Canada, they were eventually released. Authorities found that many were worse off when they were released, however, than when they were convicted.
I am all in favour of tougher prison sentences for some crimes. It takes a long time to change behaviours and be taught the new skills that can break the crime cycle. It’s staff intensive and costs money but at the same time not doing it costs a lot more in both crime and more incarceration.
Many who return to California’s famous San Quentin are arrested before they have the chance to spend the $100 bill that they are given when they are released. Released in the morning and returned later that day. Each of those crimes has a victim and of course the cost of even more incarceration. It’s in all of our best interests to get this right.
That isn’t happening now. The Conservatives have totally forgotten the “corrections” part of their crime bill in a haste of locking everyone up. While they may be correct that we need longer sentences and have more people incarcerated, locking people up without the cells to safely house them and the space to turn their lives around is a recipe for more crime and even longer sentences.
Studies have shown that for most criminals, prison isn’t a deterrent. The evidence would suggest that in most western countries, it’s not the jail time that stops people from committing crimes – most are very aware of the consequences before they do the crime.
Many can’t get by in the world without breaking the law and that is why they do it. Some are violent people who must be locked up for a long time, but most need to be taught the skills to live without crime. Treating our prisons as warehouses for criminals doesn’t do that.
While it may feel good to be tough on crime, we must break the crime cycle and that doesn’t happen in over-crowded and violent prisons.
It’s hard to care for criminals but for many, prison must be where they can change their lives. Warehousing them in small cells isn’t going to accomplish that. Best practices have to win out over Conservative ideology and politics.
© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix
Over the last couple of weeks I have received a nonstop series of death threats against me in a variety of forms.
I have been told that I was going to be kicked through a window, my head cut off, and I was going to be killed as I went out to my car or when I went home. They all came from the same person and outside of being heckled when walking home one night, it was all empty threats.
The cause of the threats is complex but there are a lot of mental-health issues there. Our ideas of reality can be somewhat different, but when someone sees their life calling as Batman, you know it’s going to be a long day.
Working at an organization that is a social housing provider, we have an obligation to keep the facility safe for everyone inside it and the community around it. The easiest thing in the world would be to evict troubled clients, who would find themselves on the streets without any supports or help.
Eventually they end up back in jail. By then, however, you have more victims of crimes committed by those who don’t really realize what is happening around them.
Over the years I have repeatedly heard the plea, "he needs help," but mentalhealth help is really hard to get – even in extreme situations. A couple of months ago a client I was working with attempted suicide and was rushed to the hospital.
He was showing signs of obvious mental-health problems but instead of treating it as a suicide attempt, the doctor treated it as a drug overdose.
He was released in a couple of hours in even worse shape than when he went to the hospital.
The next day I called the health region’s mentalhealth intake line and was told that it was quite common for attempted suicides to be treated that way and there wasn’t much they could do other than recommending he see a family doctor and then get referred to a psychiatrist.
I got off the phone and shook my head; if going to the emergency room doesn’t work and if calling the Saskatoon Health Region’s mental-health intake line does nothing, how does anyone get any mental-health help in this city?
Dr. Anna Reid was recently named the head of the Canadian Medical Association. She talked quite openly about the need for quality housing as making a difference in people’s health. On the flip side, easy access to mental-health care for low income patients would make a big difference in keeping people housed.
The mental-health disorders get people evicted from housing and banned from shelters.
For women it leads them to working the streets and for men it often leads to drug abuse and other crime. The issue isn’t the crime, it’s a lack of treatment options, and no one seems to want to do anything about it. We wouldn’t tolerate this level of care anywhere else in the system.
One issue is a shortage of psychiatrists, available beds, nursing home beds, and a lack of spaces for really hard-to-care-for individuals. It strains everyone across Canada.
Another issue is voter apathy. As voters we care passionately about surgical and emergency room wait times and so they get improved. On a recent trip to RUH’s emergency room, they had signs up telling people that they may be timing your wait in an effort to speed things up. It works. My experience was excellent but the pain from a partially torn rotator cuff is a lot easier to deal with than someone who is struggling with schizophrenia or is trapped in a delusional world of fear.
Saskatchewan Health does a lot of benchmarking. Twenty-one different factors are tracked as part of the 2004 Comparable Health Indicators Report but almost nothing is said about mental health. If it’s not bench-marked, how can we expect change?
Across the country we have seen what happens when we underfund mental-health programs. It leads to an increase of people on the streets, it forces police into becoming mental-health workers, and in some situations it leads to deaths. Mental health is a complicated field but until we start to publicly address how we doing, how is it going to get better?
The bar to get help is too high, takes too long, and people end up too close to the edge. We deal a lot with the symptoms in our society – why not tackle the problem directly?
My column in today’s The StarPhoenix
Years ago I was in Bahamas and had a chance to go swimming with sharks. A company took us in the middle of the Caribbean, tossed down a box of chum into the ocean and then tossed a line off the back of the boat to hold onto. There was no dive cage. You jumped into the water and prayed that the reef sharks that you were about to swim with know that they are bottom feeders and aren’t not in the mood to try something fattier.
Before we went on this ridiculously stupid expedition, we had to sign a waiver that said that if I was attacked by sharks, no attempt of rescue would be made. If in the unlikely chance I made it back to the boat, no first aid would be administrated and if I made to the shore without bleeding out, there would be no assistance given to me there either. I did what anyone would do that was going through an early stage midlife crisis would do, I signed it and got on the boat.
People do reckless things here in Saskatoon. Rather than have us sign waivers that stops us from doing stupid things like swimming with sharks, we have by-laws that prohibit things like swimming in the South Saskatchewan River. Even though we know the river has an undertow and a fast current, people do it all of the time. Whether it at the beach at the bottom of Ravine Drive or heading up to swim at Cranberry Flats, the lure of the water and the beach is a strong one for many people on hot summer days. While it may give people a break from the heat, it does pose some inherent risk. It risks those that are caught in the river’s undercurrent and it puts people at risk who are called on to save them; whether that be onlookers or the Saskatoon Fire Department. Too often by the time people are able to respond, it’s too late.
While this explains the by-laws designed to keep us out of the river in the city, it also means there aren’t a lot of places for people to escape the Saskatoon summer (if it ever gets here). Saskatoon does make an effort in trying to give people a place to go. There has been the significant upgrade to Mayfair Pool, changes and improvements to the spray parks, and even the transformation of River Landing all give us options than swimming in the river, yet people still flock to the beach on Ravine Drive where there is no parking, limited access, no life guards and during much of the summer, dangerous river conditions.
Calgary was faced with the same dilemma in the late 1970s and in 1978, they opened Sikome Lake in Fish Creek Provincial Park. The lake isn’t that much larger than the “lake” in Lakeview but it’s designed to be swam in. It features a hard sand bottom, a circulating spray fountain, change rooms, concession stands, and the same washed out orange sun shades that were installed when it opened. The best part of it is that it is surrounded by a wide sandy beach. Further back from the beach are picnic and barbecue areas. While it’s not that impressive to look at compared to many of Saskatchewan’s amazing lakes, it invited you into it to swim and cool down and enjoy the summer. Being in the city, it was easy to get to by car or bicycle. It also gave people another option than wading into the Bow River. While it used to be open year round, the lake is drained every winter and filled again (it takes three weeks) in the spring.
The results are that on many hot summer weekends, over 20,000 people flock there each day. The picnic spots are all taken and there is barely any spot on the beach at all. While it may not be my idea of a perfect day, it is for a lot of people, especially people who don’t have the time or the means to get away to the lake. With the average home price in Saskatoon over $300,000 and cabin prices at many northern lakes going for that much, heading away to the lake is an option for fewer and fewer people. There is Pike Lake but any lake that has to build a swimming pool right beside the lake, doesn’t seem to be a great option and so we default back to debating access to a lousy sandbar. Instead of having the same old debate about the same old sandbar that is right beside a dangerous undertow, let’s build something else. While the sandbar along the river may not be safe, it does prove one thing, if you build it, we will come.
While the Federation of Canadian Municipalities were in town, I helped give a series of tours of an affordable housing project. There were mayors, city councillors, and city administrators who came though, looked around and asked a lot of questions. Most had to do with funding streams but on the last tour the questions were focused around problems of homelessness in Saskatoon. I was going to give my thoughts but I asked them, “do any of your jurisdictions study root issues of social issues?” None of them did.
Despite the excellent work that City has done going back 36 years with the publication of our Neighbourhood Profiles, we have a limited understanding of many problems in Saskatoon because we don’t collect or have access of the data we need to really understand the issues. We aren’t alone. Government’s around the world make all sorts of decisions without fully understanding the consequences of their decision because of a lack of data. One example is the United Kingdom’s attempt to regulate fishing in the English Channel. According to political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “The Ingenuity Gap”, scientists in England are unable to list all of the species of fish in the channel but are expected to manage the fishery. How can you solve a problem if you don’t understand it?
There is a movement growing around the world called Open Data. It is the idea that a lot of government data should be made available to the public so we can not only hold the government accountable but also so we can make better commercial and societal decisions. The idea has been around for a long time but picked up with the adoption of the internet. One of the launching off points was in 2004 when the Ministers of Science of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development signed a declaration calling for all publicly funded archive data to be made publicly available. It’s based on the idea that there is a lot of information out there but we don’t have access to it.
Perhaps the biggest implementation of Open Data is the U.S. government project called Data.gov. It’s purpose is to make available U.S. government data to anyone in a format that can be used. Some department contribute more data than others. As you would expect, departments like the Environmental Protection Agency submit a lot of high quality data sets while the Department of Defense offers up very little. Even the Railroad Retirement Board is submitting data to the project. The wide range of data is fascinating. There is real time data on airline departure and arrival time, lists of failed banks, lists of closed government data centers, marriage rates in the Armed Forces and even the data behind a tire rating system.
Canada is getting on the Open Data bandwagon as well. Tony Clement started us down the path towards being more open and transparent with data.gc.ca which already has over 12,000 datasets including over 8,000 from StatsCan and another 3200 from Agriculture Canada. Despite the progress, it’s an uphill battle as witnessed by Canada Post’s recent lawsuit saying that a collection of postal codes violates it’s copyright.
Locally municipalities started opening up their data as well. Several municipalities have online crime maps, the Edmonton Police Service one of the best implementations of the idea. It allows you to see a crime breakdown on a map of a neighbourhood for time periods up to the last 60 days. The stated reason is accountability and it achieves that but that data also puts valuable information in the hands of citizens. If I know that cars are being stolen on my block, I am going to be much more aware of the people I see acting suspiciously. If I know there are assaults happening on a route I walk, I can avoid the area.
That’s not all, with open data and the right tools, you can start to layer on other data bits and see what factors like unemployment, elementary classroom sizes, types of businesses, or even the impact of different kinds of street lighting do to make the problem better or worse. It’s not the first data set that gives the answers, it’s multiple layers of data that start to make the picture clearer. Once we start to understand the problem, we can start to identify the solutions.
Open Data is a lot easier to believe in than implement. Not only do you have to have the right data but you need it in a format that is machine readable and portable. That’s a significant technological hurdle in organizations that use custom written software. The payoff however of better decisions by policy makers and business leaders and a more engaged and educated populace could be well worth the cost.