Wicked problems require wicked good solutions

Patricia Bacon Recently I was invited to participate in the vulnerable people at risk forum by the City of Whitehorse and Kwanlin Dun First Nation. While I was unable to attend the event, I remain a highly interested stakeholder in our community concerni

Patricia Bacon

Recently I was invited to participate in the vulnerable people at risk forum by the City of Whitehorse and Kwanlin Dun First Nation. While I was unable to attend the event, I remain a highly interested stakeholder in our community concerning vulnerable populations and our community’s response.

The forum asked participants to weigh in on five key questions concerning the vulnerable people in our community. Where does this population hang out, and how do we keep them safe? What programs exist to help, and are they any good? What new ideas can be implemented and what resources would it take? And what does helping vulnerable people in Whitehorse look like?

From the point of view of an organization that works daily with vulnerable populations, I think it’s vitally important that we ask these questions and I commend Kwanlin Dun and the city for bringing stakeholders together to tackle what might be called “wicked problems.”

What makes them wicked? Two reasons. First, they’re wicked because both the political left and right care about the issue but tend to answer the problem with very different policy decisions, so bringing both sides together to agree on a solution is a seriously wicked challenge.

Second, problems that result from affluence and economic success are wicked. Our community is economically doing well and the signs of a strong economy are everywhere – nice, but with this affluence comes the problem of trying to figure out how and why some Yukoners are getting left behind. Some of our community members are struggling for affordable housing, food security, economic well-being and good health in spite of a strong economy. Why? A wicked problem indeed.

My submission to the city and Kwanlin Dun about how we might respond to this wicked problem is presented in part below.

They asked: What is being done in the city to help vulnerable people? Who is doing this work? There are numerous organizations, government departments and individuals working hard to serve the vulnerable.

The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition is doing a tremendous amount of work by raising awareness about homelessness and advocating for better housing programs. However, without government leadership for a homelessness eradication strategy, we will continue to have vulnerable people despite the strong economy and the herculean efforts of coalition members.

The Salvation Army is doing its part by offering emergency shelter services. The problem is that emergency shelter is not housing, and some of our most vulnerable members need housing with supports.

The food bank is doing its part to help hungry people. However, food insecurity prevails and the food bank can’t be the sole solution for resolving it.

They asked: What new ideas can be implemented to improve the lives of vulnerable people? Who would implement them? Improving lives starts with a community that is in agreement on some fundamental principles:

* If you drive by the Salvation Army and you feel sad, mad, despair, or shame, then we must agree that homelessness is something that is no longer acceptable for our community. We must create and implement a homelessness eradication strategy. The Yukon government must lead us and work in cooperation with the municipal, First Nation, business and non-profit sector to achieve it.

* If every time you donate a can of beans to the food bank you think: “there must be something more that can be done,” then we must agree that people have the right to make a living wage and people who are on social assistance have the right to improve their lives.

We can implement a living wage policy or raise the minimum wage. We can increase the amount of money a person who receives social assistance can earn through part-time work without being penalized thus making social assistance a program of support rather than a program that keeps people in perpetual poverty. Let’s all ask our politicians to “make it so.”

* If you are able to see that vulnerable people are struggling with addiction and mental health challenges and are not just people who need to get a job or to get it together, then we must agree that the health of any individual affects the health of our community, and as a community, we’re only as healthy as our most vulnerable member. We need a mental health strategy for the community that includes: a number of treatment paths and options and reduced wait lists for mental health services. We need a broader range of addiction treatment programs – the 28-day treatment model fails many of the people who take the program and astoundingly still continues to be the gold standard for treatment. While we’re at it, let’s agree to include a managed alcohol program and sobering centre.

* If every time you get another “tax break” you wonder where the money is getting cut from – schools, roads, hospitals, social spending – then we must agree that tax breaks are eroding the overall health and well-being of members in our community and that the tax break rhetoric is serving only a handful of us; small tax increases leads to healthier communities for all of us.

Finally, they asked: What does it take to help vulnerable people in Whitehorse? It will take a host of noble things that we have within us: collaboration at all levels of government, along with the non-profit and business sector; brave elected leaders willing to make really smart evidence-based decisions even if it makes them unpopular; delivery of a range of options (sorry, there really is no one single solution to wicked problems); the right to self-determination of vulnerable people; acceptance that some members of our community will always need supports while others may transition in and out of vulnerability; and adequate resources, both human and financial.

Wicked problems – wicked good solutions.

Patricia Bacon is executive

director of Blood Ties Four

Directions Centre in Whitehorse.