Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hadrian Meets the Homeless

“They should be shot.” With narrowed eyes, so said an idealistic pretty wife who attended our monthly Dialogue Group meeting at the community center. Her fellow idealists took exception to this, although none of them lived downtown as she did. She told us the homeless were nasty to her on the street.

The first city on this continent to cooperate and innovate to solve the problem of people being homeless will probably be my own: Other cities may be content to “make progress,” or try things “piecemeal,” but in my own city, a few years ago, we set a date: To end homelessness by 2018. So forget conspiracy theories of social workers needing to keep their jobs, forget human inertia in this complex world: Here in Calgary we might be redneck cowboys, but when we agree to a trail deadline—the herd arrives on time.

For other parts of the nation I have less confidence. As you know, while there have always been discrete hobo camps and men sleeping on park benches, the existence of “the homeless” burst on the scene during the same years we opened our eyes to the existence of the quietly growing demon of deficit, back when the United States declared war on drugs. I mean, of course, the years of President Ronald Reagan, when the homeless started appearing in Hollywood shows.

Since those years, I think citizens have learned the hard way, at some cost to our national self-confidence, that we can only tackle one major issue, one war, at a time. Certainly in my private life the principle holds true: I instinctively won’t tackle more than one major self-improvement goal at a time. If we never chose to declare ending homelessness to be our national priority, then that’s probably just as well. Our national life is too complex, the temptation to drift away from our goal and wimp out is too strong.

I find the numbers revealing: Today we have fewer rural folk and more urban folk than ever before. City land value is rising faster than my bank account can gather interest: The longer my money rests in the bank, the less real estate I can buy. Hence I took a deep breath and started payments for a humble condominium. For developers in my city, there is no longer enough ROI, Return On Investment—certainly not in the expensive city core—to build any new rental buildings. Each year as more people move into Calgary than move out, and as rental prices increase, we may talk a lot about needing new rental space, but the cold equations are clear: “It ain’t gonna happen.” Not by default. In fact, building owners are converting established apartment blocks into to common-ownership condominiums, selling the whole building to a cooperative of new suite owners. Land value is like a permanently rising tide. For the first time, an established trailer park on city property is being shut down, the people dispersed, as the tide floods out stable old neighborhoods and trailer homes float away into the mist. In other words, we have less and less “affordable housing.” 

I suppose economist Adam Smith would say the “invisible hand” of the market would adjust; wages would therefore rise to balance new land costs, and innovations would appear. Maybe. Theories don’t work perfectly, and the federal government has a vested interest in jostling the steady hand with the turbulence of inflation. (We know now that inflation is government controlled, meaning: inflation is created on purpose)

My still-feels-new condo will be my retirement home; some day I will rock on my porch but I won’t have a white picket fence. I used to. I spent much of my adult life in various shared houses with a white fence. Sometimes my young housemates would be only working folks; sometimes students were in the mix. Never student-only, always both genders. We had really swell times.

To me it’s obvious: If the cold equations mean less affordable housing then, besides new improved innovations, the home-seekers will also need to resort to a new-yet-old trick of sharing a roof. If sharing a bungalow or duplex is fine for workers, students and struggling new immigrants then why isn’t sharing fine for the struggling homeless? Maybe it is.

I don’t know, I’m no psychologist; but I do have a two thousand year old story to tell…

…The emperor Hadrian was popular with the Roman people. He was an old soldier, known as “the fighting emperor.” In his day, during the glory of Rome, vast arching aqueducts channeled water from far away hills. The economy of the time meant few Romans could have running water in their own homes, but they go could all go to the baths. Splendid places. Here among mosaic floors and marble pillars were communal baths the size of swimming pools. There were healers and massage tables too. One day the emperor was passing through and he noted a man rubbing his back up and down on the wall. Hadrian asked, “What are you doing?”
“I am a poor legion veteran; I can’t afford a massage, so I am rubbing my back on this wall.”
“A veteran! Then here is a bag of gold; go and buy all the massages you want.”

The next time Hadrian was passing through the baths he noticed a dozen men rubbing their backs on the wall, men glancing at him out the corners of their eyes.
“What are you fellows doing?”
“We are poor veterans; we can’t afford a massage.”
“Well then, share—you can massage each other!” And Hadrian got on with his business.

Sean Crawford
Two months before Stampede,
During a gentle all-day snowfall,
May 2014
(This Thursday morning, still dark, it’s at the freezing point, but all our days are now above zero. It will go below freezing again Saturday night, but I think that will be the last time—spring is almost here)

~A time-traveler from the 1970’s would be delighted to learn we had solved the mystery of inflation… and then be disgusted to learn inflation is caused by the government. At least, now that we know, inflation will never again be as awful as during the 1970’s. See my essay archived November 2013, Conspiracies and Inflation.

~During the Occupy Wall Street movement, here in Calgary the homeless had their own separate encampment. My essay Occupy Wall Street, Part One expands on how employment-challenged folks in shared houses could turn their lives around; archived December 2011.

~Speaking of encampment, in Britain many a town has the suffix caster, or chester, from the Latin word for camp. These towns grew up around legion camps. The town of Bath, of course, was named for a grand Roman bath. Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep out the Celts, stretched from sea to sea at roughly the border between England and Scotland. At regular intervals were mile houses and garrisons. During the dark ages peasants would use it as one wall of their sheep pen, and remove stones for building, without having a clue what the wall was for or what it had once been called. Sic Transit Gloria.

No comments:

Post a Comment