Wednesday, February 28, 2007

As the city grows taller...

This morning, warm and snug in my car, I looked out at the snowy landscape as I waited for a red light to change to green. On the other side of the street, construction crews and equipment busily transformed a once empty lot into a sparkling new high-rise apartment condo. A billboard promised to deliver an exceptional quality of life to investors smart enough to arrive at that prestigious address.

In the crosswalk, a man shambled slowly across the street from the other side of the road. I couldn't see his face. He was huddled into the protective shield of a blue and brown blanket which he tightly clutched with one dirt caked hand at his neck. He walked in front of my car towards the sidewalk, each faltering step leading him out of the line of traffic towards the safety of the curb. As he reached it, he stumbled against the concrete lip separating him from the safety of the sidewalk.

The light turned green. The man stared down at the ground measuring his next step.

In the curbside lane, a well dressed man in a sleek, dark blue car grew impatient. He honked his horn and motioned expressively at the blanket enshrouded figure to get out of his way. The man paid no attention. Slowly, methodically, he lifted one foot up and onto the sidewalk and then the other. The crosswalk cleared, the dark blue car roared away as I too moved on, the image of the blanket enshrouded figure growing smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror as snow drifted down and covered up all signs of our passing through the intersection of each other’s lives.

Such is life in Calgary. Contradictions. Juxtapositions. And homelessness.

Where once a boarding house offered affordable shelter to single men and women, a skyrise soars into the air with its promise of the good life to come. A man who possesses everything grows momentarily impatient with someone who has nothing and leaves him in the dust of his passing by. Forgotten. Dismissed. A nobody left in the past.

This is Calgary in its boom. Good times. Affluence. Rising buildings. Rising prices. And homelessness.

In Homeless: A Prevention-Oriented Approach. (John Hopkins University Press, 1992), Rene I. Jahiel, MD, PhD. writes: “In general, the events that make people homeless are initiated and controlled by other people whom our society allows to engage in the various enterprises that contribute to the homelessness of others. The primary purpose of these enterprises is not to make people homeless but, rather, to achieve socially condoned aims such as making a living, becoming rich, obtaining a more desirable home, increasing the efficiency of the workplace, promoting the growth of cultural institutions, giving cities a competitive advantage, or helping local or federal governments to balance their budgets or limit their debts. Homelessness occurs as a side effect.”

Calgary. Soaring skylines. Growing up. Changing lives. And homelessness.

We talk of ending homelessness and in the same breath widen the gap between the haves and the have nots with our conviction that growth and prosperity are intrinsic values of our society; at any cost. We plan for the future where everyone will have a place to call home and at the same time create more homeless through our insistence that bigger is better. Bigger cities. Bigger homes. Bigger incomes. Bigger lives.

We tear down buildings that once housed low income Calgarians without consideration for where they will move on to and call it, progress. We displace renters with condo conversions and call it, free enterprise. We displace and disenfranchise those who struggle at the fringes of our society to fit in because they can't keep up; with growing trends and rent increases and higher costs of living and call it, the future.

I waited for a red light to turn green this morning and witnessed the city growing taller as a homeless man, huddled into his blanket, grew smaller in my rearview mirror.