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Friday, July 11, 2014

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Poverty exists in our own backyard

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“The poor you will always have with you” is not a very hopeful commentary on social justice and its efficacy in eradicating poverty.

A recent vacation took us to parts of Central America. It underscored, among other things, the truth of the truism about poverty; in fact, it illustrated, sadly, the extent to which such poverty exists.

Our cruise through the Panama Canal had various stops along the way. The oceans are beautiful, the wildlife close and varied, and the amenities of shipboard living beyond the necessities of life, unless you want to feed a whole village for a week on what is available daily.

And the contrasts between what we had available, and what we saw – shocking.

Guides at each port were there to show us the best of the town, but they also gave us scope to prowl among off-the-beaten-track areas. To go from Puerto Vallarta’s tourist-laden waterfront to the old town up the hill is to walk from one century into another. Too, we knew that just a few kilometres away a drug war of incredible viciousness was being waged.

Not a surprise, that. After all, if you are a young man (overwhelmingly the issue is among young men) and you have the choice of hawking tchatchkes to the gringos for a few dollars, or having your pockets heavy with coin from the drug cartels, which would you choose?

There is no contest, believe me.

Poverty became even more visible in the shuks of Huatulco, Antigua and Cartagena. There, women walked about with baskets of fruit on their heads hoping that the tourists would, for a dollar, enjoy being photographed with “Mama.” Others cried out to draw attention to their wares of carved animals, pottery, strings of beads, woven bags, pocketbooks and jewelry.

Men piled panama hats (during canal construction, the style became identified with Panama) on their heads and competed with one another to attract the tourists’ attention. Street vendors served coconut milk, fruit and sugary drinks.

Of course, none of the vendors made much money. There were just too many of them all selling the same things.

Could I come away thinking that this poverty existed only in the other places, not in our own backyard? Clearly not. As this article was being written, news flashed across the country that yet another First Nations reserve had fallen so far into decline that the Red Cross – the Red Cross! – had to intervene, trailed by some red-faced government officials. Of course, we know that many reserves share this problem. One step forward has been announced: people on reserves can now own their own homes, which will create a new pride in ownership and the ability to take out loans to make needed improvements.

That would be one small step for on-reserve housing.

In British Columbia, the government has begun closing, not opening, housing for the homeless as winter begins.

Teachers in low-income neighbourhoods have been paying for school lunches and supplies out of their own pockets as British Columbia struggles with higher than 14 per cent child poverty. More than seven per cent of seniors live in poverty in British Columbia, which next to Quebec is the highest number in Canada.

I note also that Toronto is facing, according to The Globe and Mail, cuts to nutrition programs for children, to drug prevention, AIDS awareness and at-risk neighbourhoods (I quote from an editorial). Three homeless shelters will close in Toronto; the same will be true in Vancouver unless the city wins the battle being waged here, where homeless people sleep on sidewalks three blocks from my middle-class neighbourhood.

The Globe editorial called these cuts “not crushing.” I guess that its editorial staff has enough income to give their kids breakfast and lunch money, unlike those in our inner cities where children come to school hungry, sleepy and ill-clothed. It depends, you see, on whose ox is being crushed.

We emptied our mental institutions and left those who were turfed out to their own devices, without support and counselling, without proper homes and treatment. It is no wonder that they now sleep in our doorways. So we give money and support to food banks, to holiday drives, to programs that deal daily with the misery of our downtown cores where the hapless and hopeless congregate.

The text is right: the poor we will always have with us. Whose fault is that?

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