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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Reflecting on a proposed cultural tectonic shift from "rescuing" to "prevention" on homelessness

Ø Invention,

Ø Creating new cultural elements,

Ø Diffusion, the spread of cultural traits from one society to another

These three models are proposed as methods of changing a culture. And there is a mountain of evidence, not to mention public resistance, historic allegiances including the pursuit of something commonly called stability, (another word for security?) and that old reliable, increased cost, that paints a picture of Canada as highly resistance, in the macro sense, to cultural change.

To be sure, we have opened our national ‘doors’ to immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, (whether there has been adequate and sustaining assimilation and integration of those new arrivals is another question entirely). And we have, as have most developed nations, transformed much of our economy to accommodate the digital revolution. Our health care system, something we call national, with full (?) and equal (?) access, affordable and still in need of more evolution, is a monumental societal change, one of the more bountiful legacies of the last half of the twentieth century.
Similarly, flowing from the last half of the twentieth century are “employment” insurance, injured worker compensation, pensions and old age security. More recently, child care benefits and parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a new child have been added to the social safety net. The Charter of Rights, (1981) has given legal foundation to the human rights of all citizens, and several cases testing its provisions have secured Supreme Court affirmation. Another recent cultural change whose implications will cataract through the next several decades in the legalization of marijuana, not merely for medicinal purposes, but for recreational use.

On the other side of the ledger, however, the integration of minority language rights  (French specifically) into provinces with substantial French-speaking populations, for example, Ontario have suffered a serious set-back as recently as this week, when the premier of Ontario terminated the French Language Commissioner’s Office, and withdrew support for a French language university in the provincial capital, without incurring much by way of push-back from the province’s editorial writers. Similarly, the Ontario government has also eliminated the office of the Commissioner responsible for oversight of Environmental Protection. Framed as “budget cut-backs” these regressive governmental steps, nevertheless, demonstrate that social and cultural change seems highly dependent on the mood, ideology, personnel and commitments of the government of the day. Adding to this equation of the tendencies of specific governments are the temperature, the ‘humidity’ and the velocity of what are perceived as the cultural/political/societal/attitudinal/geopolitical/economic winds that blow from continent to continent, across oceans and mountains.

Following the second world war, optimism in North America was running quite high, portending to support for and even political impetus for such massive projects in the U.S. as the Inter-state highway system for which President Eisenhower’s name is most closely associated. The St. Lawrence Seaway was also shovelled, and re-routed, along with the moving of entire communities when mega-projects and the political thinking and will needed were at a peak.

These big projects were on the engineering stage, and needing only the money, the expertise and skill, and the public political support for their construction. They opened up transportation, travel, trade and new relationships between and among American states, and between Canada and the U.S.

On the level of the governmental bureaucracies, in both Canada and the United States, however, thousands of new jobs, perhaps even millions, have been created in large public bureaucracies to provide the social safety nets that have been designed and delivered to provide a “hand-up” to those in need. Pension boards, childrens’ protective services, community policing (another highly influential and positive shift in the way police relate to their respective communities), greater integration of social services with schools, along with increased exposure to the labour market for secondary and post-secondary students have made a significant difference in the opportunities available in contemporary education.

However, just as became tragically and desperately evident immediately following the 9/11 massacre in Manhattan, siloed bureaucracies are inordinately isolated, separated, alienated and too often in competition with other bureaucratic silo’s. There has been a long and deep history, on both sides of the 49th parallel, of “protecting our turf” so that we keep those jobs, and those secure boundaries around our specialties, around our people, and most certainly around our executive leadership. Schools have retained off-duty police officers to monitor school dances for years. Occasionally, a social worker will interact with a guidance department, to discuss and implement a ‘treatment plan’ for a student in or from a troubled and troubling family. Workplaces entertain students for “employment-peeking” opportunities; colleges and universities regularly host “orientation” (recruiting) days on high school campuses. On a case-by-case basis, there is a trace of a pathway cleared from the underbrush of political and bureaucratic tradition.

As in many other spheres, towns and regions, partly resulting from the tidal wave of technology that opens books, offices, research, and ‘best practices’ around the world, for whoever might be interested. We all have access to what Vancouver, and more recently Toronto, might be doing to combat their serious and tragic opioid/fentanyl crisis. Police departments have immediate access to both technology and successful experiments in their use in visionary departments in other jurisdictions. Similarly, the medical profession’s integration of DNA’s hub value in the treatment of diseases like cancer, through new medical school research, medical journals, and pharmaceutical advances on the cutting edge of unique, personal and demonstrably effective “cocktail” of medicine.

So, there is considerable evidence that supports the breaking down of political “walls” that keep many best candles/practices securely “vaulted” under organizational/corporate, municipal, provincial, and national “bushels”.

Nevertheless, when the homeless hub designed and released, by webinar, to the public a road map for the prevention of homelessness, including a heavy emphasis on prevention, some of the participants’s eyes and ears recoiled in memory of how our Canadian culture has adapted/adopted prevention as a cultural paradigm when faced with similar and very troubling social issues. Teen-pregnancy, for example, as an issue begging for prevention, and has been recipient of religious “abstinence” programs, “promise-keeper” covenants, political campaigns that protest the distribution of birth control, and the chestnut, the campaign to eliminate therapeutic abortions. On the other hand, even practicing Roman Catholics have spurned the dictates of their hierarchy, and welcomed contraception with open arms.

An old adage seems relevant: children are falling in at a water-fall, with large numbers of “people” pulling them out at the bottom of the cataract, while a few go to the top of the falls to determine why they are becoming victims to nature’s force. There is an immediate gratification for those rescuing drowning children at the base of the falls. There is a ‘rush’ that accompanies that gratification. The process of the rescue is quite simple, easily accomplished, and eminently bonding between rescuer and rescued, often for life. Each rescue receives public and merited attention and commendation, whether through the stories within the community, or perhaps even from the wider coverage of the large media. Politicians, especially, like to find photo-ops with “local heroes” wherever they can.

Almost ignored, in most social traumas, are those at the top of the falls, struggling without many resources, without the limelight of social/political/cultural affirmation, to remove those conditions that are generating the crisis before it develops. Compared with the “rescuers” at the bottom of the falls, these “prevention activists” work behind the scene of the tragedy, without the promise or expectation of public adulation and awards, without the resources that a public considers needed, and without the immediate gratification, or even the assurance, that they will overcome the force(s) that suck those children into the vortex of the cataract. University science labs are filled with researchers “at the top of the falls”; social policy designers depend on the findings of those researchers. However, there is a significant ‘time-gap’ between the discoveries of the researchers, and the design and promulgation of social policy, and another between the policy and the implementation.

Shifting the public consciousness from the rewards of rescuing to the drudgery of prevention is analogous to the task of shifting the direction of an ocean liner from north to south. It takes a lot of patience, diligent hard work, a committed team/crew and some decision-makers who have the open-mindedness to even consider the benefits of the shift, the conditions necessary to turn the wheel, and the patience to wait for the long-term results that will show up in reports that the number of kids falling into the waterfall has dropped significantly. Only then will it be feasible for many of the adjacent observers to “see the light” of the larger social benefits, and the relative folly of those years/decades/centuries of pulling kids out, without preventing their falling in. It is often the “time gap” in the perception of relative “urgency” between public figures (the politicians/tax payers) and the researchers/policy designers that impedes the reception and implementation of a significant shift like the one from “action/rescue” to “prevention/delayed gratification. Individuals are most often disposed and enmeshed with the opportunities for instant gratification; social policy think tanks, on the other hand, find their gratification in their design and teaching of new approaches, based as it usually is, on the compilation, collation and curation of multiple pieces of research from various scholars/practitioners.

While classical conditioning (the timing and relevance of behavioural rewards to generate desired behaviour) is not the only variable to shifting a culture from “rescue to prevent,” it does have application to the process.

“Invention” is one ingredient that we can all count on to emerge from the social and scientific “laboratory” research, and “prevention” of homelessness clearly qualifies as a highly inventive (if not actually revolutionary) approach to this growing social blight.

“New cultural elements” like:
·        pointing a social, political, media, educational, religious ‘cleg’ light onto the “top of the falls”,  
·        innovative funding based on the hiring and releasing of outside-the-box ingenuous bureaucrats by politicians and social agency decision-makers, including volunteer board members,
·        training for all constituent agencies in the benefits of the new “approach” that includes a difference between the “ticker” approach of the stock market with its urgent immediacy, to a longer social and cultural perspective of the benefits of long-range planning and implementation of such a “shift”
·        building bridges to all sectors to enhance awareness of and participation in the frontal initiative to address the roots of homelessness from a preventive perspective, as a pathway both to fewer victims and reduced social costs. This includes debunking the “complexity” and up-front “costs” of such a far-reaching and “macro” approach, in order to reach individuals before they “fall”
·        providing leadership in continuing research, public conscious-raising, private fund-raising, political pressure and social change

Linked to this “new cultural elements” is the digging out and “transporting” best practices from all successful practitioners in the field, from other communities in the region, from other national neighbours, and from countries facing similar homelessness across the globe. These little screens have wireless access to the little screens in all of the laboratories, lecture halls, media newsrooms, governmental offices and legislatures, courts, and international agencies charged with economic and social and political “wellness” of our varied and complex cultures. And from those little screens, with diligence, discipline, collaboration and a renewed sense of altruism among all participants, in that “we are all in this together,” each community can acquire relevant information, social and political models and a new sense of hope and optimism that our most treasured jewels, our youth, need not fall through the cracks of indifference, apathy, anger, frustration, the abuse of power, and/or the incidents of poverty, disease, displacements. These cracks develop inside loving families, inside caring schools, within the sanctuaries of religious organizations, inside athletic teams, the military, and within all social/political organizations and corporations.

We can all become more sensitive about those conditions on the top of the “falls” within our purview, and the potential for young people to “fall” and to open our eyes, ears, minds and hearts to the notion that we might each have to shift our own “comfort zone” from detachment, refusing to intervene in another’s plight, keeping our time and treasure secure and safe, and believing that we are not “good” enough to become a part of the cultural shift that could lead to fewer “falling” into the whirlpool of homelessness, including the impacts of the well-intentioned social agencies currently operating on the front lines.

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