What we need right now: Courageous Leadership

by | POSTED: May 27, 2013

As the CEO of Bissell Centre, I am continually amazed by the number of people and organizations that care about the poor and the homeless. These people exist across all sectors. I sit with them at government tables, in corporate boardrooms, in the pews at church, in meetings with other non-profit leaders, or over coffee with friends at a café. Unfortunately I also meet people – thankfully fewer in number – that believe that, somehow, social and economic problems rest solely within individuals.   Or who judge the actions of groups like Bissell Centre as ineffective because the problems we exist to address still exist or are getting worse.
Housing the Homeless – a Useless Endeavor?
One individual told me recently that supporting Bissell Centre to house the homeless is a useless endeavor because we haven’t yet eradicated homelessness. In other words the 240 chronically homeless men, women and children we will house this year is a failure because we can’t help everyone who knocks on our door.

a-pullquote1I told this gentleman that I did not realize that housing 240 homeless people was a bad thing. I said I did not realize that addressing homelessness throughout our community was Bissell Centre’s responsibility. I guess I thought we were part of a greater effort to house the homeless. I guess I thought that homelessness is a societal issue with complex causality.  I guess I thought homelessness is a shared problem, not just the problem that organizations like Bissell Centre must resolve alone.

I pressed further into the conversation, not because I thought I could change this man’s mind, but rather to understand how he thinks, how people like him think. We talked for about an hour. We did not reach much common ground, but here are my observations and questions.

Homelessness is the Fault of the Homeless?
My counterpart told me that the government should stop wasting money on the homeless because it’s their fault they are on the street. Later he also said the government should cut taxes so that he had more money to fuel the economy as a consumer. I asked why he doesn’t just pull himself up by the bootstraps and make more money.   He waved me off and said helping the homeless won’t help the economy. Of course he is wrong, but just not prepared to be wrong.

Housing the Homeless Makes Economic Sense
There is a plethora of evidence that housing the homeless saves money. Instead of paying for emergency services, institutionalization, and in too many cases jailing people, fewer tax dollars – and perhaps fewer charitable dollars – are necessary when we house the homeless.   In Bissell Centre’s case we also employ the homeless each and every day through our casual labour program. And we also help such people find longer-term employment.   People who work pay taxes; I believe that is supposed to be good for the economy.

What about the “Tipping Point?”
I am not excusing people who carry sole or even primary responsibility for the problems they carry. But I am also not excusing people whose sole or primary interest is in their own wealth and prosperity. Communities cannot operate effectively that cater primarily to the interests of those who are doing well. Actually, I would suggest to the “Haves” in our society that their own good fortune will dissipate when we reach an economic and social tipping point.

That tipping point will appear when there is such a degree of inequity in our society that our economies and social structures begin to crumble. Crime increases when people are desperate. Businesses will suffer as the numbers of consumers with disposal income decreases.

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A Strong Private Sector is Not Enough
I know the arguments. Strengthen the business sector and everyone will benefit. It’s not that a strong business sector is not vital for community development; rather, it is a myth that a healthy private sector automatically makes everyone’s life better.   There is an equal argument to be made that if we strengthen communities and the individuals in them, our economy will strengthen as well. Clearly we need multiple strategies to build and sustain healthy, vibrant communities.

Our Clients Live in Deep Poverty
At Bissell Centre, we help thousands of people each year who struggle even when the government’s revenue forecasts are accurate. They subsist in deep poverty, either live in substandard housing or on the street, and are ravished by mental illness, addictions, and tragic histories of sexual and physical abuse. As well too many people are disenfranchised by both overt and subtle racism.

Right Here in Alberta
We have too many children going to school hungry and ill-prepared for learning and development. People with disabilities can’t find decent jobs. Our young people are graduating from universities burdened by the heavy weight of debt. Half of Canadians are living pay check to pay check. Do we think that is not the case here in Alberta?

More than half of the people who come to our drop-in centre each day suffer from a mental illness. Each day, dozens of people who can’t make ends meet ask our intake workers for help. Many, if not most, are working but the wages they earn cannot keep up with a cost of living trend that far exceeds the growth in wages required to meet those costs.

We also see too many people who have given up. They have turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and anguish they experience in their lives. We can blame them. It’s easy to do that. Far better, I suggest, to help them.

The Biggest Reason to Care
Notwithstanding the sound economic and social arguments for addressing social problems, there is another reason why we should care about the dire straits so many people face. It might even be the most important reason. It’s a human reason. It’s what drives parents to continually support their children even when their children are not helping themselves. It’s what drives one spouse to do whatever is necessary to support the other spouse. It’s why we stop and help a person who has slipped on the ice and fallen. It’s just the right thing to do – the human thing to do.

The Problems and the Solutions are Complex
Like many, I am concerned about what actions the Provincial Government will take to address the significant shortfalls in oil revenue. While I join the many other voices that wonder how such projections could be so off the mark, I am not interested in piling on the Premier as if doing so will solve the immediate challenge.

I won’t suggest I would welcome higher taxes.   Then again, look what happened when the government did away with Alberta Health Care fees. Our health care system has suffered dramatically because the previous administration yielded to the “cut-taxes” voices. I have a hard time believing such cuts strengthened our economy, much less advanced the health of Albertans.

We Need Stellar, Courageous Leadership
I don’t envy Premier Redford and her colleagues. No matter what she does, she will be vilified by special interest groups and people who think “they “know best. I think some mistakes were made in the budget, such as deep cuts to services for the disabled, and it is difficult to understand cuts to the education of our children and young people. To be honest, I don’t think any political party could produce a budget that everyone rallied around. But I do know that what we need right now is stellar, courageous leadership, and I am hopeful we get it from our Premier and her colleagues.

Equitable Participation in the Economy
We need leadership that recognizes that the economy must work for the large majority. There needs to be equitable participation in the economy. Record profits for business during a time when too many people are a pay check or two away from homelessness seems difficult to rationalize as a sustainable strategy.

a-pullquote-3Governments Must Commit to Helping the Most Vulnerable
We need leadership that not only addresses the aspirations of those who are doing well but also faces the grim reality faced by the poor, the abused, and the voiceless. We need leadership that ensures the government identifies its role and commitment to those who are most vulnerable in our province. The Social Policy Framework is a decent start, but it will be actions that show Albertans that the words in the framework are more than rhetoric.

We need leadership that understands not only that governments are the biggest funders of social programs but must continue to be so. Charitable giving, as significant as it is, cannot deliver what is required to achieve and sustain community health and well-being.

What about Zero Tolerance for Hunger, Abuse, Racism, Poverty?
We need leadership that will not tolerate hungry children, abused women, systemic racism, and the devastation that poverty causes. The commitment to reduce poverty and to eliminate child poverty in five years, and the Province’s bold plan to end homelessness must continue – these are not expendable initiatives.

The Courage to Make Hard Decisions
We need leadership that has the courage to cut back and/or raise taxes in ways that do not deepen the growing divide between the Haves and Have-nots.

We need leadership that includes the long-view even while working hard to ameliorate immediate budgetary problems. Short-term answers that ignore long-term implications may turn down the volume of criticism but will likely just serve to pass along bigger problems to future leaders.

Let’s Walk Forward Together
Advice is easier to give than act on. I know that. I don’t know what I would do if I were the Premier of Alberta. But I can offer to help. For what it’s worth, Bissell Centre is willing to participate with others from all sectors to find answers and solutions that I imagine none of us can find alone. Let’s walk together toward a better future – for all of us.

Let’s accept we don’t see eye to eye on everything. Let’s stop the finger pointing and the caustic environment we create and perpetuate when we paint those with whom we disagree with dark colours sourced in anger and I-know-better-than-you snide remarks. It’s hard to walk together in a common direction when everyone is pushing one another away.

Mark Holmgren, CEO
Bissell Centre