Our Power, Our Water, Our Waste

In a city struggling to achieve a 0% tax increase, while simultaneously hoping to enact a grand vision for downtown, the need to find cash (or credit) is strong.  And when the need is strong, every asset starts to look tempting as a potential infusion of cash.  You may recall last October when there was a consideration of selling London Hydro to an Albertan company, as covered well in this post by Gina Barber.  This prompted a request by Council for a shared services utility model review, which has now been outlined and approved, and can be seen here.  You may be interested to note that just performing the review is going to cost $700,000, which was pointed out by Councillor Usher, with many other councillors and the Mayor not believing him on this figure as they had clearly not read the report.

The presentation from London Hydro on their annual report was very informative in terms of considering utilities.  Some key facts:

  • London Hydro returns the City an annual dividend of $3M
  • Only 14% of electricity rate is set locally
  • London Hydro runs very efficiently and has decreased outages
  • Large capital investments are made annually to enhance our system

In a nutshell, London Hydro functions very efficiently, keeps our rates as low as possible (though there is a predicted 40% provincial increase over the next 8 years), and returns a significant dividend.  The Corporation of the City of London is the sole shareholder.  After this presentation, even Councillor Van Meerbergen was clear that it would make no sense to sell it.

Overall, the selling of utilities is a scenario in which government wins, and citizens/ratepayers lose.  There are two benefits to the government: firstly, either selling the utility or rolling it into a private corporation allows the government to remove any existing debt from their own books, enhancing access to credit (hence the ‘Debt retirement charge’ on your bill that the City was able pass off).  Secondly, there can be a large and immediate infusion of cash used to either hold tax rates or build legacy projects. The problem for citizens is the inevitable increase to rates, or loss of service quality.  When you add a requirement for profit to the equation, it’s like adding an extra line to expenses (ie. payout to shareholders), and the money has to come from somewhere.  So, the corporation owning the utility will either have to decrease expenses (ie. infrastructure development) or increase revenues (ie. rates).  (Note: I didn’t include the option of increasing effeciencies as it is clear that our utilities are already very well managed.)

I am very much in favour of minimizing our utility rates, as we currently are.  I am very much afraid of increase dividends paid to the Corporation of the City of London, at the expense of increased rates for we the people.  These are our utilities, and should benefit us the most, and cost us the least.

Separating the Disengaged and the Unengaged

It’s hard to know what word is more popular these days, ‘citizen’, or ‘engagement’.  Put the two together, and you have the making of a blog post/city initiative/drinking club/ or website.  Now don’t get me wrong, that sounds like a cynical opening, but I am all for citizen engagement.  Create a list of engaged citizens in London, and I hope my name would be on it.  I read the blog posts, I go to the city events, I’ll be at the Mo for pints and politics, and I comment on websites.  However, there’s a sorrow deep within me because I already know what we’ll do wrong, and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it.

A look through London’s great blogs will show you that most of what we are talking about in terms of citizen engagement is reaching out to the disengaged.  Brian Gibson hits home for many of us regarding political cynicism: “I hope we all listen, and can help engage the cynical among us.  And defeat the cynic that resides inside us too.”  Jo-Anne Bishop highlights the irony of the declaration of London as the city of opportunity at a time of eroding citizen engagement.  Glen Pearson confronts skepticism, highlighting that it is up to us, the citizens, to show we have the maturity to co-lead our city along with Council.  Even I have championed a growing citizen movement that falls outside the established bounds of a special interest group.

And it’s working.  Look at the turnout for Rethink London, a sold out crowd of 1300 people suddenly interested in the official plan process.  But look a little closer, actually look around the room.  Yes, we got the Homeless Coalition, and the neighbourhood associations, and university/college student councils, and non-profit staff, and business association members out, we have revived flagging interest and brought out the cynical middle class.  But who isn’t there?  The poor.  Those fighting from paycheque to paycheque, those on endless waits for social housing, those who smell too odd, drink too much, and swear at the mayor when they see him because their child got apprehended by CAS, and goddamnit, they don’t know who else to blame.  These are the unengaged.

The unengaged.  Those who are never asked to be engaged.  Those who aren’t cynical, because they never cared to begin with.  Because no one has asked them to care.  Those for whom skepticism is far too soft a word, rather they are completely opposed to anything and anyone in the policy sphere, because the policies are their enemy.  The policies are why all they can afford is processed food, why potential employers can ask them to bring in a criminal reference check and find out about supposedly protected information of youth criminal records, why in spite of their flagrant mental and physical illnesses they can’t move from OW to ODSP, why the school kicked them out only slightly slower than their mother kicked them out.

The unengaged.  History, research, and experience tells us that those living in poverty will for the most part not engage unless we make a concerted effort to try.  It’s a hierarchy of needs, your lens is small and your time is precious when you are struggling to survive.  Therefore, our decisions for our community will continue to be made by those with access to the most resources.  We may be able to shift decisions from a more elite network of business owners and politicians to your average middle class, but that still excludes 1/5-1/6 of our citizens.  And although I can try to be a voice for the poor, I’m not the voice of the poor.

Why Affordable Housing?

Affordable housing is not cheap.  At up to $145,000 per unit, and with 3005 families on the wait list, it would cost over $400M to meet London’s affordable housing need.  That said, the system-wide costs of not housing people are exponentially greater than this investment.  From 2010 statistics, housing an individual in shelter costs $1,450 per month, jail costs $140 per day, psychiatric acute care costs $650 per day, and acute care inpatient over $885 daily.  That means that for every homeless person who spends a year in psychiatric care, we could build almost two units of housing.  The local economic gains of building housing are also extensive.  Short term gains include job creation, development fees, and matched funding from the province and feds; long term gains include assessment growth, community revitalization, and urban intensification.

Apart from the economic argument, there is the value in terms of optimizing our social systems.  All the research that has been coming out in the past 15 years on addressing homelessness has been pointing to the essential role of ‘housing first’.  This means that the best outcomes for people with multiple vulnerabilities are achieved when people are moved first into housing before dealing with addictions, education, employment, health care, etc.  In a municipal context with an average affordable housing wait list of 8.2 years, and ‘fast-track’ list of 1.3 years, we are far from being able to make housing first a reality.  This means that we are knowingly working in a sub-optimal system trying to deal with complex health and social needs for people who do not have housing stability.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the human argument.  Homelessness is not only a housing issue, but it is always a housing issue.  In the past number of years in researching and working in the area of homelessness, what has been most dismaying for me is that with an issue that is so complex, the solutions are so simple and within our grasp.  We could eliminate homelessness tomorrow with two steps: 1) create an adequate stock of affordable housing, and 2) provide supports to help people maintain their housing.  They have done this in Norway, and have a per capita rate of homelessness that is less than 10% of ours, representing those who are simply in transition between housing.  And, unfortunately, where are government has relinquished its responsibility to provide for those in need, citizens and non-profits have needed to step in and fill the gap.  This is happening in London, with faith communities, social services, developers and others engaging in building affordable housing, but we are currently only on track to build 500 units of our 1200 unit goal over the next 4 years.  Something needs to happen in London, or the problem will only grow.

Tracing back the Dominoes

I work closely on a number of projects with Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, and much of her current work focuses on youth homelessness.  I was quoted in this news article talking about some of the root issues and key challenges of youth homelessness.  In the work that I do looking at policies and homelessness mostly with adults, the majority of them trace their life stories back to a tipping point, a time when things went downhill and since which they just haven’t been the same.  For many, this is the point at which they left school (willingly or not).

However, the end of school is often only one domino falling in a long line.  After the school domino falls, there are often others that come down, such as starting to use substances, which makes it harder for people to exit homelessness.  And, on the other side, the dominoes that knocked out school are often leaving home, precipitated by family conflict, precipitated by either poverty, abuse, mental illness, substance use of parents,  separation/divorce/marriage, or all of the above.  So, the lack of an education can doom a youth to poverty, but far before that was what is often a lifetime of family conflict in the (former) home.

This has significant implications for how we organize social services.  Getting into the home to help people, or surrounding people with supports through the school system, is very difficult.  It is actually far easier to create a drop-in for homeless youth than to try to prevent family conflict.  In terms of upstream versus downstream services, this appears to be one of the hardest.  However, if we could support children and youth we would be preventing substance use, mental illness, poverty and homelessness, and assisting with education and employment.  The big question is: How do we intervene?

The Day the Music Died

When I worked as a nursing student, and later a Registered Nurse, at the London InterCommunity Health Centre, I met a lot of people experiencing homelessness who I will never forget.  Many people using the Centre would be there day-in and day-out, for a good portion of the day.  And, in working with them on the basic necessities of life, relationships were often very personal.  One story I won’t forget anytime soon is getting to know Michael (not his real name).

Mike had been in and out of homelessness for many years, struggling both with an alcohol addiction and with living in a wheelchair since he lost the use of his legs as a teenager in a cycling accident.  When I got to know Mike he was 48, had been sober for 8 months, and was waiting for a wheelchair accessible affordable housing unit to open up.  Mike had a very gentle demeanour, a great dad-beard, and loved to chat.  I often had to extricate myself in mid-sentence from conversations to help other clients, but we would carry on where we left off when I had a minute.

I got to know Mike quite well over the weeks and months that passed, about his hopes and dreams, his painful memories, and his personal perspective on every current event (he was an avid reader of the London Free Press).  More importantly though, I got to know of his love for music.  Mike was an avid guitar player, having taken it up shortly after his injury, and he found great solace in music.  However, Mike was also broke, so each month towards the end of the month he would pawn his guitar to a shop, and then when his social assistance cheque came in he would purchase it back.  He would entertain us with songs, but only intermittently.

In April of 2004 I completed my Nursing program, and told him it would be my last day there as a student, although I would be starting the next week as staff.  “This calls for a celebration,” he said, and rolled out of the Centre.  A few minutes later he came back, with his guitar, which he had purchased back from the pawn shop for the occasion.  “I like to sing people songs with their name, but yours is kind of hard, so this is the best I could do”, he said, and sang “Dear Abby” by John Prine.  The Centre, as usual when he sang, went quiet while people listened.  He sang it twice.  Moved by his kindness, it took an effort not to get choked up.

I went about the rest of my day that Friday, we ushered everyone out at 3:30 when we closed, and we had cake with staff to celebrate.  The middle of the next week I came in to work, and was busy with the usual activities of the Centre.  Mid-morning one of the clients I knew well came in and said, “Hey, did you hear about Mike?  He died over the weekend, just dropped dead of a heart attack.”

I was crushed.

I had patients or clients die before, but each death still hits you hard.  In this case, his kindness of spending his meager money to get his guitar to celebrate with me, followed shortly by his death, was extra powerful.  Very few people will even remember Mike, but I will never forget him.