Tag Archives: Freakonomics

Concentration of Poverty in Riversdale

This is the second post in a series on poverty in the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon.  You can find the first post here.

A lot of you have asking why my blog series on Riversdale stopped.  The quick answer is that I found a question that I had no answer to.  Of course the long answer is that I started writing about an article that Dave Hutton wrote back in May.  As I started to write about it, I got to a point where i was going to talk about the concentration of poverty in Riversdale (and to a lesser degree, the other core neighbourhoods in Saskatoon).  As I was writing, I remembered hearing Leonard Sweet talk about growing up in poverty in West Virginia.  While I am sure all of us idealize parts of our childhood, he was describing both poverty and a strong sense of community that existed in his youth and even now while West Virginia ranks at the bottom of most indicators of economic strength and standard of living it also have very low crime rates, an issue that has defined Saskatoon’s inner city for a number of years.

So when Councilor Lorje and Randy Pshebylo comment on the concentration of poverty in Saskatoon, it isn’t just a lack of money that is the issue.

"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."

This interactive map below shows the main social service agencies in Saskatoon.  It isn’t totally accurate as it is building and not agency based (the Family Service Village in Kinsmen Park holds numerous agencies in one place and I chose to include just the YWCA and Crisis Intervention service on the map to give a wider perspective).

As I plotted out the graph, I didn’t include longer term housing like Saskatoon Housing Authority and Quint Development Corporation (which offers below market rent and I would argue don’t serve a homeless or transient population) or agencies that I knew about but when I Googled their name, I wasn’t easily able to determine the address (which is true of shelters catering to women and youth) which means that they aren’t publically known or want to keep a low profile.  I also left out low income suites targeted towards seniors.  In the end, while some of these agencies are spread over the city, others are in the city core so I think the ratio remains similar.

Here is the color guide.

  • Red: Emergency and transitional housing locations
  • Yellow: Support agencies that provide supports to people in the communities
  • Blue: Food security
  • Purple: Drop In Centres

A quick glance at the map makes it obvious that there is a concentration of lower income services in the Riversdale/Pleasant Hill area.  I was shown another map that showed all of the non-profits that are in Riversdale but that also included many of the local churches.  I am going to leave those out of the conversation because some of them have been there for a long time and not all of them are engaged in any ministry or services to the poor (which is a different post in itself).  No matter which way you look at it, there are a lot of sinks in the living room.  The question is why.

Now it does make sense that there would be a lot of services to the poor in Riversdale and Pleasant Hill as they are the two poorest neighbourhoods in the city and the neighbourhoods around on each side of them (Caswell Hill and King George) also have a concentration of poverty. 

Saskatoon realtor Norm Fisher’s website provides an excellent visual breakdown of the economics of Pleasant Hill and Riversdale. (charts used with permission)

Take a quick look at Riversdale’s income breakdown.

Riversdale's income breakdown

Of the 306 households making under $15,000/year, 140 households are making under $10,000 year.  See full neighbourhood profile here.

Head further west on 20th Street and check out Pleasant Hill’s income breakdown

Pleasant Hill's income breakdown

Of the 863 households trying to get by on under $15,000, 450 households are making less than $10,000 year.  See full neighborhood profile here.

South of Riversdale is King George.  One of Saskatoon’s oldest neighbourhoods.

King George's income breakdown

Of the 153 households making under $15,000 per year, 65 of those households are making under $10,000 per year.  You can see the neighbourhood profile here.

Heading even further west you have Meadowgreen.  While it doesn’t have the commercial connection to 20th Street that Pleasant Hill and Riversdale does, it does have a high concentration of poverty.


Of the 407 households with an income of under $15,000, 125 of them are bringing in under $10,000.  Again, here is the full neighbourhood profile.

I was shocked a little by Caswell Hill’s income breakdown. 

Caswell Hill's income breakdown

I spend a lot of time walking through Caswell Hill and the amount of low income households caught me off guard.  Especially considering that there are 125 households making under $10,000 a year.  Even a neighbourhood with a high concentration of homes being renovated, fixed up, and improved, there is a significant concentration of poverty.

In the end you have 2133 households trying to love on under $15,000 a year and another 1662 households trying to get by under $30,000 a year in those four neighbourhoods.  Of those families, a staggering 905 of them are trying to get by on under $10,000 per year (140 households in Riversdale, 450 households in Pleasant Hill, 65 households in King George, 125 households in Caswell Hill). 

Let’s put this another way.

  $ income/year % less than $15,000/year
City of Saskatoon 65,487 5.9%
Core neighbourhoods 35,003 13.3%
Caswell Hill 41,454 11.2%
King George 36,805 8.8%
Pleasant Hill 25,776 18.3%
Riversdale 29,441 14.3%
Westmount 34,654 11.4%

Not only is there a concentration of poverty in the core neighbourhoods of Saskatoon, the underlying causes are hard to overcome.  The vast majority of residents in the five listed neighbourhoods do not have a high school diploma or GED.  Those that are employed are working in retail jobs which often do not feature stable hours and/or a liveable wage.   For those who are not working, they are trying to get by on one of the two main Social Services programs, (through either SAP or TEA). 

Rental vs. Ownership
  % Rental % Owned
City of Saskatoon 38 62
Core Neighbourhoods 49 51
Caswell 42 58
King George 33 67
Pleasant Hill 75 25
Riversdale 58 42
Westmount 38 62

If you have a highly educated and mobile workforce, high rental rates can be quite useful, especially in a changing economy (you can move to where the jobs are).  The problem is that the high rental numbers in the core neighbourhoods are combined with a population with a very poor education.

City of Saskatoon 6.0
Core Neighbourhoods 13.2
Caswell 4.6
King George 9.2
Pleasant Hill 18.4
Riversdale 21.0
Westmount 13.0

Take a look at the data… you have low income, low education, low rate of home ownership all in the same neighbourhoods.  Along with it you will see higher rates of violence and crime, despite increased police efforts at curbing it.

Of course does the concentration of services in Riversdale help or hurt the neighbourhood?  You need to separate the business of 20th Street from the equation first.  Does having a business district in the middle of the second poorest neighbourhood hurt things. Toss in the fact that in 2007 StatsCan found that 1/2 of all of the violent crime in Saskatoon (which was Canada’s second most violent city in 2009) was in Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, it explains why one study in Saskatoon found people felt safer on Broadway Avenue at night than they did on 20th Street during the day.  This is shocking.  Riverdale and Pleasant Hill had 300 crime reports per 1000 residents (second only to the neighbourhoods around Confederation Park)

2007 crime rate in Saskatoon

Freakonomics A quick look at the map would show a link between poverty and crime but for those of you who want to study it further, Harvard economics professor Steven Levitt (and co-author of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics) wrote on the changing link between poverty and crime back in 1999 for the New York Federal Reserve Bank.  As he summarizes his findings of previous research.

In summary, much but not all of the existing empirical evidence is consistent with the conclusion that poverty and income inequality are associated with higher crime rates.

This would coincide with what we see in Saskatoon.  The main point of Levitt’s research is that as income gaps widened, the poor went from robbing those wealthier to those who are also poor.  In other words, the rich in Saskatoon are more likely to be able to afford SaskTel SecurTek (with credit checks being demanded by SecurTek and others, it actually makes it very difficult for low income residents to get the same protection as their wealthier neighbours.  We may not have two tier healthcare, we do have two tier Crown Corporations).  This happens for a lot of reasons that can be linked to the rise of crack cocaine and Reagan’s tough on crime policies (Traditional petty criminals were locked up for longer sentences giving drug dealer a new national distribution network).  Once people realized the money that they could make selling drugs to the masses, it spread across the continent.  Drugs like cocaine used to be for the rich, now with crack out there, drugs became a vice of the poor.  The amount of times I see a dial-a-dope run while at work late shows the depth of the problem.

This matters why?  Lower incomes criminals used to head across the river to the east side to rob people (higher income criminals went to work for Wall Street).  Which more or less spread crime over an urban area.  A combination of technology and wealthy families moving further and further away from the city core turned places like Riversdale, Pleasant Hill and 20th Street into high crime areas.  Wendy and I have experienced this in Mayfair.  We have just seen a lot of property crime on our block… everything from three steering columns being destroyed as people tried to steal our cars to the accompanying smashed windows, to our low voltage landscape lights and Christmas lights being stolen.  Now damage to my car or Christmas lights is one thing.  That is frustrating, annoying, and with a $800 bill even maddening.  Yet it’s nothing compared to how one would feel if someone close to you was violently hurt.

Here is a four month snapshot of assaults in Saskatoon.  These just aren’t minor assaults either but assaults causing bodily harm, aggravated assaults, and assaults with a weapon.

Map of 2010 assaults in Saskatoon

According to police it isn’t that bad.

“If people are suggesting that crime is spiralling out of control over the last five years, the numbers don’t support that,” said Det. Staff Sgt. Jean-Marc Voisard, who heads the personal violence section.

But after 31 years with the Saskatoon police, Voisard has noticed that assaults have become more vicious. Injuries are more serious and knives are more common now, he said.

“When I started, there were stabbings, but not to the extent we see today,” Voisard said.

“Society has become more violent. People are quicker to resort to violence to settle a dispute, and that applies to bar fights just as much as a family fighting in the living room.”

The concentration of crime in Riversdale and Pleasant Hill confirms what Stats Canada is saying and makes it even harder for businesses in Riversdale.  This matters because the perception of crime is more important then the crime rate itself.  Back in the early 80s my friends and I used to as ten year olds take the nearest C-Train station downtown to check out the Glenbow Museum on any given Saturday.  I used to catch a bus by myself that would take kids to Pask-a-poo each Saturday and ski all day supervised.  Now when Mark walks the two short blocks to Safeway from our place, even during the early evening, Wendy’s co-workers show incredible concern that he walked two short blocks.  It doesn’t matter that statistically it was more dangerous growing up in Calgary, the perception is that is more dangerous for us now.  Fear is a powerful motivator.

Not only do you have the fear of crime in the city core, there are several well known links between poverty and mental health.  As the Ontario Mental Health Association puts it.

People with serious mental illness face many barriers over their lifetime, including stigma and discrimination, which may prevent them from securing adequate education and employment. Experiencing a mental illness can seriously interrupt a person’s education or career path and result in diminished opportunities for employment. A lack of secure employment, in turn, affects one’s ability to earn an adequate income. As a result, people may eventually drift into poverty.

Moreover, individuals with serious mental illness are frequently unable to access community services and supports due to stigma, gaps in service and/or challenges in system navigation. Lack of sufficient primary health care and community mental health services, shortages of affordable housing, and inadequate income support further alienate them from life in the community. Exclusion from these social and economic supports results in social isolation, significantly increasing their risk of chronic poverty.

Individuals with work-limiting disabilities are nearly three times as likely to be poor and four times as likely to be in receipt of social assistance as individuals without a disability.

The stigma of people with mental disabilities is incredible.  Many well meaning people have asked me, “How do you work with those people?”  While listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago I listened to one radio host complain about people who were homeless and had mental people out on the same Saskatoon streets as he was.  The suggestion was that they stay inside.  Many people with mental health and addiction issues are living downtown are in Riversdale and Pleasant Hill and that stigma follows them and of course impacts shop owners on 20th.  This is at the core of the creation of suburbia and bedroom communities (although in Saskatchewan I think it has a lot to do with people wanting to connect to rural roots).

If you are a shop owner on Riversdale, you have big time problem.  You are surrounded by some of poorest neighbourhoods in Canada which means that your ability to make money off of local consumers is limited.  You are in one of the highest crime areas of Canada which means that you have to rely heavily on attracting customers to come down and spend money on 20th Street and those consumers don’t feel safe. Even the Little Chief Police Station that was intended to make Riversdale safer is a quiet reminder that by it’s very presence, Riversdale isn’t always a safe place to be. 

In response to the poverty, mental health and addiction issues and crime, it makes sense that several NGO’s moved into Riversdale to help people cope with the poverty.  High end retailers go to where the money is and like it or not, many community based organizations go where societal issues are.  Many of them do very good work but by our very presence in the neighbourhood, we make it harder for businesses to operate here.  Long time readers know that I used to work the 4-12 shift at the Salvation Army’s front desk.  We are right across from what I thought was the greatest Chinese restaurant in the world, The Golden Dragon.  All of the time we would have drunks stumble in to our place and then over to The Golden Dragon causing all sorts of problems for the owners and it’s customers.  That takes a toll on your business and no wonder I have to walk downtown to get a Starbucks.  In the last year or so the Salvation Army has followed the lead of other shelters and has worked hard at keeping the residents and users of our services off the front sidewalk and to the side of the building where we purchased two heavy duty (and quite nice) picnic tables and umbrellas.   Our janitors work hard at sweeping up cigarette butts and garbage but every morning that I come to work there are some guys loitering out front (it is a public sidewalk).  The same can be said about the front of the Saskatoon Food Bank, the Friendship Inn, the Lighthouse, the Bridge on 20th and a variety of other social organizations on 20th Street.  Despite that Wendy has twice been accosted while waiting for me to get off work by guys looking for money and sadly we still get complaints made by people who have had to endure comments by our clients as they walked by.

I don’t know how much it changes the neighbourhood.  What would be the difference between 20th Street if there was no community based organizations there?  Would it be a thriving business district or without the social structures and emergency services that organizations provide would it be worse off.  Is there an alternative way to deliver services?

To answer that, I first want to take a look at what life is life for those that are living under $10,000 / year because without that, we don’t even know what is really needed.  I’ll post more tomorrow.

Saskatoon has a substance abuse problem

Last night Wendy, Mark, and Oliver came along as I picked up Christmas kettles at the malls and collect them to be counted.  As I was driving from Wal-Mart in Confederation Mall along 22nd Street to Midtown Plaza.   A women just walked out in front of three lanes of incoming traffic.  Below is a screen shot of the location from Google Maps from this spring.

Google Street view of 22nd Street West in SaskatoonIt was dark and foggy last night and she was wearing a light grey coat and jacket that blended into the icy streets.  Wendy and I saw her at the same time and I hit the brakes and the horn.  I don’t drive that fast but I was still doing 50 kph along the road.  She kept on walking in front of the van.  The van slid. So did the car behind me and beside me.  She kept on walking in front of the van.  I swerved.  She kept on walking.  For a second I thought I was going to hit and kill her.  She kept on walking in front of the van.  I missed her by a less than an inch.  I think my mirror may have grazed her jacket. She just kept on walking.  Never looked up, never acknowledged she just about got hit but a couple of cars.

I called the Saskatoon Police and dispatch did what she needed to do but by the time I got to Midtown Plaza, I was shaking and my heart was still racing.  I have never come so close to ending some one’s life as I had last night.

This wasn’t the first incident we have had with someone who was really high on drugs this week.  On the way home from our staff Christmas party on Sunday night, we drove down Avenue D, past the 33rd Street Safeway.  It was below –40 degrees Celsius that night.

Google Street View of 1212 Avenue D North

As we drive past this place, I noticed what looked to be a pile of garbage propped up beside the tree.  As my headlights hit it, I noticed it was a person sitting there.  I looked at Wendy and we around the block again and saw the women who had been sitting up beside the tree, was now laying down.  We called the police and ambulance and before they got there, she came to.  She had a variety of needles, vials and what looked to be some moonshine with her.  She had no shoes on and from the dark spots on her bare feet, she had severely frozen her feet and had no idea where she was.

I spent last night trying to figure out if this is getting worse and I think it is.  Now in hindsight I should have known better than to drive down 22nd Street on a Friday night when there are checks out.  It can be a zoo.  As a teenager growing up in Lawson Heights, the was a free weekly paper called the Saskatoon Free Press.  In it they had a column called West Side Stories that talked about so many of the things that I see today.  From our vantage point in Lawson Heights, I thought he was lying and making this stuff up.  I think about it the columns a lot now when I see prostitutes shooting themselves up while walking home in the early morning or I see taxi’s roll up to the MK Kitchen in the middle of the night.

The MK Kitchen in Saskatoon

A package is tossed up into a window and a package is tossed back down.  I am pretty sure they aren’t distributing Gideon Bibles.

I wonder if this is the changing face of Saskatoon.  Wendy tells me that she has dealt with more customers high on drugs in the last year than she has seen ever before.  It has happened enough that she has the number to police dispatch memorized.

In Saskatoon, the money has come in, the good times are more or less here, the city has boomed and many have gotten rich.  Rent has gone up, cost of living has gone up and some are left behind.  I have often wondered if certain people turn to drug use when other hope is gone.  When you take home ownership away and low skill jobs are low paying, where happens to the hope?  Of course this just causes more problems.

What’s the answer?  Well the War on Drugs hasn’t done that well in the United States and according to Freakonomics, it has made the problem worse.  So much of the discussion that revolves around drugs today, revolves around white collar recreational drug use and generally revolves around legalizing or decriminalizing pot.  While I have never smoked pot, I don’t get to excited about it when friends do either.  I am not talking about pot.  It’s the meth.  It’s the heroine (and some abusing methadone as well).  It’s the crack and and cocaine.  More police on the streets makes a difference but even then there is only so much you can do.  While last night personally shook me up, about ten cars drove by that women almost frozen to death on Avenue D.  It was –40 and only two of us stopped. Jane Jacobs would be the first to say that until we care as neighbors what is happening in our neighborhoods, there is little the police or city can do. 

Jacobs maintained that mix use residential neighborhoods (industrial, residential, and commercial) was key to vibrant neighborhoods and communities.  This goes against what most cities desire as her ideal upholds redundancy against order and efficiency.  While we don’t have any input over rezoning and land use in Riversdale and the west side, we can work hard at connectiing people to each other and their community.  Last year I attended a speech by Iian De Jong who was the manager of the City of Toronto’s Streets to Home program.  In any Housing First program, the key is to get people stable housing and then work from there.  One thing he said was interesting and he talked about how important it was to create horizontal ties in communities.  Living in a car driven culture like Saskatoon, there isn’t a lot of ties I have to my neighborhood outside of our loyalty to the 33rd Street Safeway and the Bellissimo Ristorante and Lounge nearby.  We don’t feature a lot of mixed use neighborhoods in Saskatoon which means that unless someone goes out of their way to make an effort, you don’t know anyone else which is why you are left to freeze on a busy street or allowed to walk out into six lanes of traffic when you need to be at Larson House or at least inside out of the cold.  The challenge I guess is being part of a process where we create an environment where more people care and are engaged with what is happening around them.

I wish I could tell myself that this is two isolated incidents but we see this all of the time at work.  Booze, gas, drugs, solvents, and even model contact cement being abused to horrific levels.  I have been told by numerous people that there is a local doctor who will prescribe drugs to people and as you are walking out of his office, people offer to buy part of your prescription from you.   Wendy tells me that she is seeing it a lot more at work and we have seen more of it in our neighborhood as well.  In a recent e-mail from our city councilor, he pointed out that Saskatoon Police obtained a search warrant in our neighborhood the other day.

As a result two females were arrested and a large number of drug paraphernalia was seized.  This was a location used for shooting up.  It has been shut down.

Now only if they would shut down the numerous locations selling drugs…

In Reckoning: Drugs, Cities, and the American Future, author Elliote Currie says that the problem is big enough in America to threaten the countries future.  The problem is that they have been neglected for so long that the solution is focused spending on education, job training, and employment opportunity programs.  Of course those kind of solutions takes decades and generations to make a big impact and in the process, you have lost entire generations of people to drugs, violence, and crime.  It seems like such a waste.

I know many say, get tough on crime but as a parole officer reminded me, the average sentence is only 60 days which is enough to cost you your job, get you evicted but not enough time to get help in jail.  Also, there is almost no drug programming available in provincial jails.  For some reasons the same governments who like to get tough on crime also favor cutting back rehabilitation funding in prisons (it makes no sense to me because unless you plan to give everyone a life sentence, without programming they will return to their life of crime but this time with a better criminal network).  While I am not opposed to longer sentences, I do want them to get help when they are there to stop recidivism when they get out.

Well I will ponder some of this over the holidays and see what we can do when I get back to work in January (I am taking the week off after Christmas this year).  If you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments.