Out of Sight – Out of Mind: Homelessness and Mental Health

There have been a number of tragedies stemming from the terrible death of David MacPherson in the fire at the unregulated group home last week. The tragedy that someone would run a home like this this is not be accredited; the tragedy that there are so many in London that need this assistance and have no where else to go; the tragedy of there being no way for these people who found each other to stay together; and the list goes on and on and on and on. But in all our hand wringing and calls for of blame and change we might want to take a minute and pause.

Already the blame is starting to roll out thick and fast, and in collective righteous indignation we will ask how could the fire department, mental health advocates, hospitals, police, city, government allow this to happen? We will insist that there needs to be an investigation and that there must be change! The public will demand that this never happen again! The public will want someone to pay for this tragedy! The public will want that someone to make sure that David MacPherson’s death was not in vain! The public will want some good to come from this! 

Also, quietly in the background, in meetings behind closed doors, the hospitals will be talking to community mental health agencies and asking them not to aggravate the situation , the LHIN will be asking the hospitals to keep things calm, the endless and unfeeling machinery of turf protection and blame dodging will continue unabated and the result will be exactly nothing.

But perhaps the public, you, me, us, might want to take a good long look in the mirror, and understand our culpability in this and thousands of other deaths like David’s. In the end, after all the finger pointing and indignant outrage by politicians and media, by well intentioned but completely uniformed community and media leaders, we can sit down and talk about the heart of this matter.

The fact is that this death, and thousands of other deaths, happen because we are too cheap to pay for services for someone like David MacPherson. An organization like People Helping People would never need to exist if we decided that it was important that people are not left homeless. Their leader, Mr. Charles, would never be needed if we thought that mental health services were important. The landlord would have already been charged and prosecuted if we thought it was important that the fire department had the heft it needed to charge him.But we’d rather low taxes and not to think about it to much.

We don’t care enough to fix the issues of homelessness, mental health and addictions in our city, province, or country. We are so much more concerned with watching politicians point fingers, talk show radio hosts offer overly simplistic one liners, and with hoping that it will all go away soon. And there is the nub of the issue friends. Really, we want it all to go away. We want the people on Dundas and Richmond and the people in Old East Village to be out of sight. Because if they’re out of sight then they’re out of mind and we don’t want to think about this anymore. Despite protestations to the contrary, we don’t want to pay for the care that will create a home so they can get the treatment that will stop a death like David MacPherson’s. We will feel bad, but in the end David’s death is the price of keeping taxes low and that’s too bad but that’s the way it is.

Some will say “but times are tough and we can’t afford great services” but this argument has a hollow ring to it. We’ve been cutting services for the last 20 years and the majority of that time the economy has been fine so it makes little sense. Some will say it’s the fault of the heartless conservatives or the spend and tax liberals but we put them there and they respond to what we want so that argument rings hollow as well so deaths happen and we look away.

This week we opened a really outstanding mental health hospital in London and that’s a good thing. It’s taken 23 years to build and because of that it has now cost $1 billion dollars, but I am glad it’s here. However, for $1 million dollars we could create more emergency shelter beds, for $7 million we could build some affordable housing, and for $20 million there would a lot fewer David MacPherson’s this year and next. This seems small next to $1 billion, But we won’t pay it because we have been sold the mantra that taxes are bad for more than 30 years and so there’ll be more David’s and more groups like People Helping People and more predatory landlords taking advantage and the end result will be more preventable deaths and more homelessness and more blame and…. well you get the idea.

Nothing will change and nothing good will come from David MacPherson’s death because we don’t care enough to pay the taxes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s the truth. But don’t worry about it. Once the media storm passes things will go back to normal and then you won’t have to think about it. It will be out of sigh and out of mind.

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Expectations and the new Council: Things are different

A tectonic shift happened last Monday night and the faces and focus around our Council Chambers has radically shifted. The result is that we have 11 new Councillors who will be sworn in to serve our city in December.  The consequences of this are yet to be seen but we know that the relationship between this new Council and Londoners will be a very different one.

But first we must recognize a few things and in this recognition set our expectations accordingly. The first thing we need to realize is that many of the new Councillors were advocates for a number of causes in London. From Reservoir Hill to Transit to The London Plan, they have all worked hard in the community to press the current Council to understand that London is evolving into a very different place than they thought it was. But there is a difference between advocates and city builders.

An advocate gives voice to a cause, a person, or viewpoint. Each of the new Councillors did this very well and that is to be applauded. But a city builder is someone who must listen to a variety of points of view and build consensus to take the plans we have and make them reality. A city builder also recognizes that priorities must be set through a strategic plan. They must set 5 or 6 key priorities they want to accomplish and focus on them. This will be the first task of this new Council and we must give them the time to do it.

This new Council also will not repeat the mistakes of the current one by engaging in bickering and devision. Londoners very clearly said in this election that they do not want the antics of the past four years to continue and is new Council heard this loud and clear at the door. They campaigned on it and we can fully expect that the tone on this new Council will be a respectful one. But despite the accusations of group think or imminent  failure from some in the media, each of these new Councillors are very independent thinkers and are known for they’re analysis of issues. You can expect debates around the horseshoe but expect them to be about ideas not personal agendas and old grudges.

City staff are also going to have a better relationship with this Council but senior staff will have to come to grips with the fact that this group is deeply connected to community and are able to almost instantly receive feedback from their constituents through social media. They are a very connected group collectively and can quickly request input and receive feedback on a scale we haven’t seen at City Hall before. This is a very new thing when it comes to our representatives at 300 Dufferin and new things take time to adjust to.

Some will think that this new Council will be profligate spenders and will mire our city with unmanageable debt. The thing that we and this new Council have to come to grips with is there is a difference between austerity and investment. The plans we have are long term investments that will add economic growth to London. This is not to say that Council will immediately open the vaults to citizens tax money but rather you can expect them to prudently invest in key areas to benefit the whole of London.

We as Londoners have to adjust our expectations as well. President Obama came in to office on a wave of popular support and quickly found out that he could not accomplish many of the things he promised on the campaign trial. The result was that the promise of Hope turned to one of disappointment. This new Council came in on a wave of popular support as well and they should heed the example of President Obama. No one Mayor or Councillor can, by them selves or without the support of community, create instant change. This Mayor and Council will have to collaborate closely, and continually, on key issues that have not changed between Monday night and Tuesday Morning, Unemployment, infrastructure gaps, inadequate transit, development issues, encouraging business growth, and the loss of talent are all issues in London today as they were Monday night. These issues will not be fixed December 1st with the swearing in of a new Council. We must temper our expectations and recognize that these are large issues that require time and focus to address. We need to give Council the time to do this.

The next four years are a little brighter for London but will only really dawn into a new day for our city if we as citizens join with this new Council and support them to become the best possible Council they can be. Citizenship does not only happen at the ballot box but happens in the work between elections. We all need to roll up our sleeves now and begin the work of creating a better London not just for today and for us, but for a better and brighter future London.