Opinion: Help the homeless, not the consultants

It was a brief whiff of wisdom that disappeared as quickly as an empty parking spot at Bower Place mall at Christmas.

A 10-year plan to end homelessness expired at the end of 2018, so now the city wants to craft a five-year strategy to replace the document.

City Coun. Vesna Higham suggested rather than spending $62,000 developing a new plan to assist those without shelter, the money would be better spent actually helping people in need.

“What has changed? Why not put the money into people and programs rather than consultants and committees?” Higham asked.

Higham had common sense on her side, but she, along with the rest of council, recently jettisoned such good judgment. They decided to spend the sum on a consultation exercise in place of direct relief to people suffering from no roofs over their heads.

Surely, if the city had faith in its 10-year plan, it must have confidence in the steps it was taking to solve the problem. Council isn’t going to admit the initiatives and programs it was supporting in recent years fell short of what was needed.

Council has been told by staff the opioid crisis and economic downturn have changed the nature of homelessness in the city, but it doesn’t mean the answer is to divert help and instead engage in a questionable display of consultations. The evolving needs should be a call to action, not justification for dithering.

“The face of homelessness is more complex,” is how city community services director Sarah Cockerill put it.

Fair enough, but couldn’t the expired report be tweaked to reflect today’s reality? The nature of the challenge hasn’t changed so much that tried and true practices will be thrown out the window and replaced with new measures.

Presumably addiction has always been at the root of homelessness for many of the disadvantaged, and the loss of employment and a patch of bad luck has landed people on the street before. The homeless hope for a place where they can enjoy some measure of stability and comfort — necessities if they’re going to support themselves and their families.

A compelling reason for developing a new plan, it turns out, is the consultations and resulting report are likely to attract money from the provincial and federal governments.

That’s a sad admission. It’s often said there’s only one taxpayer — meaning the same Red Deer resident who pays city taxes also sends money to Edmonton and Ottawa to support public services.

It’s unfortunate if city tax dollars have to be spent demonstrating yet again a homeless problem exists in Red Deer, simply so provincial and federal funding can be secured. No credible person who has witnessed the problem would conclude continued action isn’t necessary.

Charades such as this breed skepticism. Tax dollars should be spent addressing real-life problems, not on hiring consultants to compose reports that state the obvious.

Higham and her council colleagues had the chance to advance the cause of common sense and fiscal responsibility. They could have put the $62,000 toward tangible help for the homeless, while pressing senior levels of government for justified funding.

Instead, they chose to listen to the bafflegab of bureaucrats and spend money on “consultants and committees.”

That neither helps the homeless, nor the hapless taxpayer.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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