VSHA Master r1 150X75

 VSHA Sunday Meeting Report , 

December 8, 2013

 by Barrie Webster

Today’s guest speaker was Dr. Margo Matwychuk of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria. Dr. Matwychuk has a PhD from the City University of New York and has research interests in sociocultural anthropology, political economy, feminism, and Latin America. She is engaged in research and teaching on housing and homelessness in Victoria, BC and has been participating in work to find local transition housing solutions with the objective of ending homelessness and increasing associated food security. She recently was made Director of Social Justice Studies at UVic.

The talk began with an outline of the dimensions of homelessness being considered and offered the following terms and categories: absolute and relative homelessness, visible and invisible homelessness, street entrenched homelessness, deserving and undeserving homelessness, homelessness involving elderly women, people excluded from housing by economic circumstances, and homelessness through natural disasters. The Canadian definitions of homelessness include unsheltered, emergency sheltered, previously accommodated (e.g., fleeing from domestic violence), and at risk of homelessness and the website <http:homelesshub.ca>is available for those seeking more detail.

Causes of homelessness are considered to be twofold: 1. structural and 2. individualized pathology (medicalized). The former is largely determined by our political economy which is a larger and more far-reaching influence than the medicalized causes; however, these latter causes are the more often addressed. The structural causes are international in scope, are of a social justice dimension, and involve the collateral damage from neoliberalism, privatization/corporatization, and the effects of international free trade. The resulting shifting of wealth to the upper more affluent portion of society in richer countries removes the financial resources from the social support systems in countries around the world. A description of this problem has been documented by the geographer, David Harvey, Distinguished Professor in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Individualized pathology or the medicalized causes of homelessness put the responsibility onto the individual and include the contribution of mental illness, addictions, and the idea that the poor are more likely to be criminals. The difficulty is that this approach leads homeless people to see themselves as being at fault and the resulting discouragement only makes the problem worse. Interestingly. most of our efforts to deal with homelessness focus on these perceived causes, e.g., almost all 10-year anti-homelessness plans deal with medicalized causes.

In Victoria, the <http://victoriahomelessness.ca/> website provides a reference point. The factors of vacancy rates, affordable housing, rental costs, social housing, food bank use, shelter use, new housing stock, and income levels are considered. Further, in Victoria, 19% of the homeless are aboriginal, well in excess of their population proportion.

Put simply, it is a question of social justice vs. charity. And the key factors are structural causes, systemic failures in our system, and personal circumstances, in that order.