I happened to be in Whitehorse last Thursday, and thought I’d drop by the Fireweed Farmer’s Market to see what was on offer.
The market is held once a week down in Shipyards Park. We left the car in the parking lot and were walking toward the market when I glanced down, and at my feet on the sidewalk was a painted sign. It read, “You don’t belong here.”
I must say I was mystified, and prepared to be equally miffed. Why don’t I belong here? And anyway, how did they know I was coming? Since no one could have predicted my arrival, I concluded that the sign, although apparently directed at me, was really meant for someone else. But who? And how are they to know it’s them? Does nobody belong there? Or is there a select group of unwanted persons whose presence is particularly unneeded in that locale?
And where exactly is it that I, they, or we don’t belong? In the park? On planet Earth? Or just on the six square feet of sidewalk occupied by the sign? Farther down the sidewalk, a couple more signs offered what was presumably intended as clarification. Social exclusion, they announced, is all around us. I looked all around me, but this turned out to be a falsehood. There were no more socially exclusive announcements to be seen. By stepping over the original graffito, we had put social exclusion behind us.
My companion had some sketchy explanation for the baffling presence of this obscure form of sidewalk art. This, she offered, must be the government in action. This is their answer to the culture of homelessness, addiction, violence, poverty, and crime that haunts the streets of Whitehorse.
Her assessment was confirmed by an article in Friday’s Yukon News. It turns out that the graffitist was none other than territorial Health Minister Glenn Hart himself, and the purpose of the signs is to raise public awareness of, you guessed it, social exclusion. Hart is on a mission, if not to stamp out social exclusion, at least to include it in the public dialogue.
What a great idea! Think how it must raise the spirits when you get booted out of Whitehorse Correctional Centre at 7 a.m. with no breakfast, take a chilly hike downtown to face another round of homeless poverty in which your only source of comfort – cheap booze – is also the path back to jail, to see etched on the unforgiving sidewalk a sign which, if you can read, lets you know you don’t belong.
Not only is the program highly imaginative and a great comfort to the poor and homeless – or should I say the socially excluded – it’s a great bargain. Compare it, for instance, to social housing, and you’ll see right away that the government can deliver cost-effective services far better by painting squares on sidewalks than by actually building apartments.
The shortage of social housing in the Yukon is so acute that it would cost millions to address it with building projects. And the needs are so great. At present the territory has no second-stage housing for abused women and their children. This means that a woman leaving the transition home often has to choose between returning to the home where she was abused, or living on the street.
The territorial government could have tapped into federal infrastructure funds to remedy this, but who needs the stress? It’s rumoured that Hart will ensure that these women are socially included by chalking out some hopscotch squares for them in the alley behind the Sally Ann. Inside each would be a cheerful welcome saying something along the lines of, “This is where you belong.”
We could do the same with the Yukon’s population of homeless alcoholics. After choking the life out of long-term residential treatment programs, there should be plenty of money to spend on paint to let the street people know where they belong, and where they don’t.
This campaign could become a blueprint for public action on social issues. Step one, rename the problem. Poverty and homelessness sound so … oh, I don’t now, poor and homeless. Social exclusion is a much more inclusive term – rich people get sad too you know. Step two, pretend the problem can be solved by public awareness – hey if everybody knows that the people who sleep on the riverbank are sad about it, something’s got to give, right?
Step three, put up a bunch of signs around town, and then forget about it. Who needs multimillion-dollar programs when people are socially included?
I have an idea for a locale for one of those You don’t belong here signs. Let’s paint it during the next election, on Glenn Hart’s desktop.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.