Homelessness study stirs up controversy

By Manal Sheikh

“I don’t want to be helped,” said Serg, a homeless man in Calgary. “I’m not some charity where all I need is money. I have everything I need, and I don’t need anything else.”

Serg’s perspective on the widely debated issue of homelessness is controversial, and where opinions diverge.

Columbia University economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty wrote a paper entitled Housing Subsidies and Homelessness: A Simple Idea. Published by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, the paper said homelessness can be more effectively diminished by the government “paying the homeless a flat rate for every night they are not homeless.”

“Service interventions [such as] increasing work skills or qualifying them for government benefits often succeed in their immediate objectives, but generally do not make a dent in homelessness [in the long term],” he said in his paper.

However, critics want to know where the money is coming from. O’Flaherty’s solution for funding is the Optimal Homelessness-Reducing Home Allowance that is financed by a land value tax.

Land value taxes don’t distort other economic decisions because the people who ultimately benefit from the land value tax, landowners, will be the ones who pay for housing the homeless.

“Regular payments, and the external benefits of fewer homeless people, will make Calgary more attractive, and so rents and land prices will be bid up,” said O’Flaherty.

The elimination of homelessness will depend on the importance Calgarians place on the issue, and whether they are willing to pay. The conclusion is that the more Calgarians care, the faster homelessness will be reduced, but others disagree.

An anonymous source, worried about her name being published due to her employment, has worked at various homeless shelters in Alberta for the past 15 years as a shift supervisor. In her opinion, the problem is not quite as straightforward as O’Flaherty claims.

“If you are on the streets, night after night, pretty soon something is going to give. No one is out on the streets longer than they can help it, if they are sane,” she said. “They will work, find a job, move back home, apply for government benefits– anything.”

She was pessimistic whether ohrha would be beneficial to fix the issues of homelessness.

The shelter where she works has an average of 100 people every night requiring food and shelter.

“I see the same people most nights,” she said, adding that people change constantly as many find a place to live.

“There is no getting through to them. They are there because they want to be, and you can’t change that,” she said. “Is money the answer to all of life’s problems?”

There are varying opinions in the public as well.

According to Statistics Canada, the perception many Canadians had of homelessness in 2009 was divided. For example, 27 per cent believed it was due to lack of social assistance, 13 per cent believed it to be recession-related.

Third-year law student Jessica Fernandez said, “in my opinion, the main issue with homeless people is mental illness. Another big issue is addiction to alcohol and drugs. You need to address those issues first. Homelessness is not solved by an economic effect, but rather by a mental effect.”

In his paper, O’Flaherty does admit that ohrha would not help all homeless people.

“There will always be a few eccentric ones who prefer gourmet meals to shelter, and are perfectly content spending their paycheque on gourmet meals rather than rent,” he said.

Serg has been homeless since 1988, and plans to be for the rest of his life. When he was told about ohrha, Serg’s reply was, “I want to be homeless. It was my decision. I don’t want your damn money!”

Another homeless man, Ron, moved to Calgary from New Orleans after the Vietnam War. “It messed me up bad,” he said.

Ron does not agree with ohrha either. “There is no place I call home except where I am. I am where I am so this is home.”

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