The recent news of a dead woman found at a homeless campsite south of Red Deer made me shiver. The five-year plan to end homelessness didn’t help her. More will die before five years are up and there will still be homeless people.
In the early 1900s, a woman named Bella Singer turned her home into a boarding house in Calgary. As I recall the story, she crunched her family into one bedroom and rented out the rest. On the weekends, when the tenants engaged in a friendly poker game, she charged a surcharge of a nickel.
With her boarding house income, she raised her family and over the years bought vacant real estate, thus setting up the basis for a future real estate empire for her descendants. With her nickel tax on poker, she saved up hundreds of dollars and used it to finance the escape of Jewish family and friends from the pogroms of her native Poland — ultimately saving many from the Holocaust.
Today, room and board or boarding houses are seen as being too unsophisticated a solution to the problem of homelessness. Yet really, what can working class people afford on $8-something-an-hour salaries?
When my late mother was a young woman in England, she became homeless overnight with the death of her grandmother, to whom she’d been caregiver. My mother’s friend rented her one half of her bed. That’s how people used to live. Guess what? My mom survived and thrived.
But today we have standards. We don’t want people to have to live “like that” — so instead, they have to live on the street.
Why is it preferable that people sleep under the Hwy 53 bridge or in a tent, than that they sleep in a small room with shared bathroom facilities in a residential neighbourhood?
In Calgary, there is a 10-year plan to end homelessness and part of it includes providing $25,000 in grants to help people make the perfect secondary suite. So far there are few takers — you guessed it.
The standards are too high or complicated.
Yet for decades dozens of families living in the Dalhousie neighborhood near the University of Calgary have benefited financially from operating small, technically ‘illegal’ suites!
When I left home, I lived in a second floor, two-room suite with communal bathroom. There were three such suites upstairs and one main floor apartment. My rent was $80. It was the perfect place for me and well within my $400 a month earnings. Can people find the equivalent housing today? No.
This is why there are so many homeless.
Urbanist Jane Jacobs clearly stated it in her book Dark Age Ahead – most cities have eradicated or outlawed Single Occupancy Rooms in the downtown core, where people could walk to work and live for very little; at the same time in the past 30 years the liberal thinkers have insisted that many institutionalized mental patients could live independently and have tossed them on the street to fend for themselves.
So we have had a rise in the number of poor people with more social problems fill the street at the same time we’ve had a drastic reduction in affordable housing. Subsequently, municipalities decided that boarding houses were not in keeping with the middle class ideal, plus they could make more taxes from gentrified uptown buildings – so they have outlawed through zoning bylaws the only possible solution that could fill the gap.
But we’re not all middle class earners. Lots of people are poor. Many will always be poor. This is a reality. But they don’t have to be homeless or starving.
We need to give them the options of nominally priced housing, sprinkled throughout cities and towns.
We had a solution for affordable housing for the homeless back in the early 1900s: the boarding house.
This is a legislative issue – simply a zoning issue for the most part, and not an infrastructure issue. Thus it can be resolved overnight.
Alberta was built on boarding houses like Bella Singer’s.
Simple grassroots solutions like hers are the best and immediate, and proven to work historically.
Don’t let our high standards lead to the deaths of more desperate people.
In the words of Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter:
Oh, a storm is threatening
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
Michelle Stirling-Anosh is a Ponoka freelance columnist.