Put poverty on the agenda

In the midst of our election, there's a lot of talk about tax cuts, the economy, fighter jets and prisons. There's been little talk about poverty. Perhaps that should change.

In the midst of our election, there’s a lot of talk about tax cuts, the economy, fighter jets and prisons.

There’s been little talk about poverty.

Perhaps that should change.

One in 10 Canadians live below the poverty line. And the wage gap continues to grow in this country.

Despite the frenetic mining work in the Yukon, more and more clients are visiting the Whitehorse Food Bank.

And a recent study by a group of academics, doctors and social workers says that, for every homeless person you see tucked up in a doorway in Canada, another 23 people are on the cusp of homelessness, living in crowded, dirty, unsafe conditions.

The researchers suggest that works out to more than 400,000 living dangerously close to the edge. In a country of 30 million souls, that’s a lot.

The researchers call it a “hidden emergency.”

And it’s being ignored by our national government.

The Research Alliance for Canadian Homelessness, Housing and Health’s research suggests decent, affordable housing is essential to human health.

Yet, despite the call for a national housing strategy from an all-party parliamentary committee on poverty – and support from opposition parties – it’s off the Conservative government’s radar – fobbed off on the provinces and territories.

Those living on the edge may currently be housed, but most have been homeless in the last 24 months.

Half of those involved in the study had a mental illness. Two-thirds had suffered head trauma at some point in their lives. Many had asthma, hepatitis B, arthritis or other serious health problems.

Another third were having a hard time finding enough to eat.

The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, focused on 1,200 people in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.

But, given the current housing shortage in Whitehorse, it is not hard to imagine there are plenty of similar cases here.

And here’s another startling conclusion from the study. Simply having four walls and a roof is not enough to guarantee better health.

The researchers have found the widest gulf in health outcomes is not between the homeless and the housed, it’s between those who have adequate housing, and those who don’t.

The focus here is on “adequate housing.”

When housing is not up to snuff, people die sooner. The researchers say it cuts up to 10 years off a person’s life.

But there’s more to it than that. These people, in the miserable years leading up to their deaths, make more trips to hospitals and medical clinics, which costs society a huge chunk of government health budgets.

So there’s a tangible benefit to Canada ensuring its citizens have decent housing.

What is decent?

Well, that’s hard to pin down – currently it’s in the domain of the provinces. And so we have widely disparate standards across the country.

Which is why the parliamentary committee on poverty suggested a comprehensive long-term national strategy to set standards and improve the country’s housing stock.

So far, that hasn’t happened. It hasn’t even been discussed.

Instead, we see Ottawa is sinking billions into building needless prisons, which come with enormous operation costs down the line.

And we’re spending billions on sophisticated fighter aircraft in an era when the largest threat to our society comes not from nation states, but from terrorist cells employing simple, low-tech devices to kill and cause bedlam in our cities.

It’s beyond time citizens shift the national debate.

Canada needs a long-term housing strategy.

Ask candidates where they stand on that.

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