A homeless person's camp

In Edmonton, this is someone’s home

There is a shame that is associated with poverty that no one has addressed so far that I’ve seen. I’ve heard politicians talk about “strategies” and social workers talk about “assistance” but no one talks about the unbelievable humiliation that occurs when you’re poor.

When humans stopped their hunter-gatherer ways and started farming, they gained something; knowledge of what it meant to own property. Suddenly we started comparing what we own to what our neighbours own. Everything became property. From our sperm and eggs to our offspring to our spouses to our farms. We stopped looking at each other as people and started seeing property.

All this means that if you’re one of the have nots, you have less worth than the “good” folk.

I know some people will protest. After all, there are such good works as Income Support, the Food Bank and the Hope Mission. If you’re one of the haves, you support them, give your hard earned money to them and help those less fortunate. You maybe give a coffee to the bum on the street corner begging for change. In a really generous mood you might buy them lunch. Not once do the “good” folk think about the cost to the poor.

At Income Support there’s a belief that if they pay less than a person needs to live it will motivate them to find a job. There’s a few assumptions being made here that are horribly wrong. First, there’s an assumption that if you’re coming to Income Support, you’re too lazy to be motivated to want to work. Second, that anyone on Income Support does not deserve to live in dignity. Then there is the demand that you lay your life bare just to pay your bills and eat for another month. It isn’t enough that the Alberta Government demands that you account for every moment of your time, this “keep em hungry” mentality only perpetuates this cycle. There’s nothing to address how the person got to that position in the first place, nor is there any way to stop the cycle that starts once a person is on support. Humiliation leads to depression which leads to a sense of hopelessness which leads to humiliation. This isn’t addressed by front line workers or Income Support.

If you ever had to use the services of the Food Bank, there is a humiliation that happens when you don’t have enough food to feed yourself. The people at the Food Bank are aware of it and try to lessen it but that doesn’t change that it’s there. It’s not just the Food Bank. Stop and talk to the homeless guy on the corner. He’d love to go home to a shower and a good meal but he holds out his cup knowing you think that loonie you put in the pot is going to another bottle.

Those who have pity those who live in poverty and are repulsed by them in equal measure. The repulsion is covered by good works, donations of food and clothes cover up the guilt that somehow those who have less taint the city. Don’t believe me? Talk to someone about the homeless problem sometime. The usual answers involve a belief that the person must be lazy or crazy. “Get a job, any job” is a familiar refrain to the homeless. Money is thrown at the surface problems of addiction and mental illness but the problem of poverty never goes away.

There is a misconception that there will always be poor. Yes, this is true in a society where we are more concerned about things than we are people. Alberta is one of the richest provinces in Canada. Hell, we’re richer than even most areas in North America yet we have this poverty problem. Alberta’s job prospects are growing at a rate that is unbelievable but even that’s not enough to address our poverty problem.

So what’s the answer?

Let’s start by eliminating the humiliation.

Stop looking at those who are poor as some kind of animal to be rescued. Start seeing their humanity, their person. Let’s address the core problem of poverty; there is an unequal distribution of wealth going on in Alberta that leaves people to suffer horribly. It isn’t a matter of things. It isn’t about who has what. There’s a deeper problem that needs addressing; we assess each other’s worth based on what they have. We are people first and foremost. Strip us all naked and that’s who we are at our core. Let’s start from there.

I can foresee a lot of politicians who will nod and smile and tell me I don’t understand the depth of the problem. I understand better than they think. It’s time that many of our government systems get a serious overhaul. Alberta Income Support, Health Care, MLA expenses and pay, so many more. It’s time to get rid of some of the outdated thinking that’s going on and listen to those who are most deeply affected by these systems.

It’s time to change.