Renditions of the famous quote, “Society will be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable citizens,” are often referenced and commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. While the exact origin of the famous saying is unclear (see Atkins’ article below on the potential origin), it rings true. Indeed, people in future generations will look back and assess how we did in 2020 to support and assist those most vulnerable in society. Tragically, while statistics might say something different about standards of living, from my own ground-level observations, on the streets of Winnipeg, I am forced to say things seem to have gotten worse over recent decades. The tent cities that are being erected by homeless people in Winnipeg are reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which he described the gut-wrenching struggle for survival of impoverished people across the United States during the great depression. Closer to home, my grandmother, who lived to be 100 years old, was born into a large family on the Saskatchewan prairies, sent away from the family farm because her parents could not feed her. Even at close to 100, she used to cry when she described the despair of people in that era, hitching train rides back and forth across Canada looking for work.
Even more on point, Wiseman’s book, Stations of the Lost, described her study of the infamous ‘skid row’ of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. It was brilliantly written from the perspective of skid row alcoholics who described how they navigated staying alive and the fragmented assortment of organizations providing various services for them. I drew on Wiseman’s approach for my study of human sex slavery in Canada, for my dissertation and my forthcoming book, Sex Industry Slavery: Protecting Canada’s Youth. Wiseman’s book describes the rotted core of a city, inhabited by people lost in the despair of hopeless poverty, anesthetized by alcohol, to numb the pain of having no hope. Wiseman’s account eerily resembles what we are seeing in the streets of Winnipeg, and most likely across North America.
While most people in the City are social distancing to stem the spread of COVID-19, during the worst pandemic of the century, people with fewer means are crowding into bus shacks to stay warm, and huddling in makeshift tents. Below is a picture of people gathered around a soupline, many with no home, the thought of social distancing to avoid getting sick pushed down by the soul-crushing pain of hunger. Paramedics, first responders, medical personnel and police are overwhelmed with trying to help people in the constant and relentless cycle of substance abuse and violence related to alcohol, meth and whatever people can lay their hands on to numb their pain. Who is responsible for addressing these major social issues? I would argue we ALL are, and our most significant barrier is the attitude that these are all someone else’s problems. Ironically, emergency services did not create these problems, but they get the brunt of responding to the side-effects. They can play a significant role in their solution. My first book, Canadian Policing in the 21st Century: A Frontline Officer on Challenges and Changes, mainly focussed on how we can all pull together and collaborate on the root causes of social problems. Our Shared Future: Windows into Canada’s Reconciliation Journey (Reimer & Chrismas, 2020), dives deeper into positive examples of how Canada’s deep divides can be traversed.
What are we doing about the root causes of these massive and growing social problems? The only viable solution seems to be greater collaboration and focussing the larger society-wide discourse on the fact that we ALL are responsible. If homeless people erected a tent city anywhere in the suburbs, I’m quite sure it would be dismantled within days; but in the core, it seems acceptable. These are certainly some of the most vulnerable people in the greatest need in our community. If we are to be judged by future generations on how we looked after our most vulnerable, surely this will be one of the measures.