COLUMN: Homelessness in a Neighbouring City

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
July 25th, 2016

Nelson’s Report on Homelessness

This column is narrowly focussed on a social problem in Nelson, but despite that, I am sure the issues are of interest to readers anywhere in Canada.

Nelson’s Committee on Homelessness has released its eighth annual report card on the issue of homeless citizens. It explains some background. You can find it at http://nelsoncares.ca/8th-annual-report-homelessness-nelson/

The signs of deterioration

Nelson is experiencing a quiet, unravelling crisis. It is easy to miss because the rest of the world has such troubles that ours can seem too tiny to see. Our crisis is the same as in other places: social, economic, political. We and the world are in step.

The perennial abyss between the rich and poor of the earth is yawning wider, and a newer feature is the disappearance of a middle that would bridge that. Nelson is becoming gentrified – that is, the richest Canadians are buying properties here – and at the same time, the impoverished and homeless are growing in number.

Richer citizens means housing cost rises while the wage structure cannot sustain the poor in such circumstances. Even mighty cities like Vancouver have this social problem. Wages are simply too small to provide incomes with which working people can purchase homes. The price of housing is not organically related to the earning power of citizens; this is a provincial and national problem also. Until every city has discovered its minimum living wage and workers receive that, the problem persists.

Read about living wages at http://www.livingwagecanada.ca/

Global deterioration?

An excellent statistical and political analysis of this problem of increasing poverty in America, and the disappearance of a middle class, is provided by Thomas Frank in his new book, Listen, Liberal.

[Read an interview with him here:


The UK is suffering the same trends.

Here is Charles Eisenstein on the subject of Britain’s exit from the EU:

“The Brexit vote marks a rare moment of discontinuity, when the usual normalizing narratives falter and a society experiences a fertile and frightening moment of bewilderment. Brexit, though, is a mere foreshadowing of the vertigo that will ensue with the next economic crisis, which will dwarf that of 2008.

“To prepare for it, we have to operate on a level much deeper than current politics offers. It is the tacitly assumed narratives lurking beneath conventional political discourse that need our attention.

“If the Prime Minister asked my opinion (I’m still waiting for the phone call), I’d say to declare a national month of listening, in which the immigrants, the angry rural pensioners, the bureaucrats, the financial industry workers, listen to each other in small forums, and in which media publications print unslanted stories of the people they have demonized. The goal of that month would not be to figure out what to do. It would be to understand each other better. The goal of the storytelling would not be to make a point. It would be to be heard and to be known. To hear another’s story is to expand oneself. It is an act of intimacy, of connection, and it subverts the ideology that holds us separate. When we take in new stories, we change and grow.

” … Brexit and the bigger breakdowns it foreshadows are potent. It shows us that maybe we don’t know, after all. That moment of stumbling, of humility, is precious. It may be that the Brexit vote isn’t a big enough shock to interrupt the onrush of normative political discourse that seeks to make sense of things in familiar terms. Rest assured: bigger shocks are coming.”

Eisenstein is a prolific writer and lecturer, with a very impressive analytical mind at work on the crises of our times. Regular readers of The Arc know how much I admire his insight and his spiritual qualities as an optimist for the human condition. He is striving with all his considerable ability to provide a better narrative for our future than the Story of Progress and Separation and Control.

Rich Nelson, poor Nelson

Why the wealthy want to live in Nelson is pretty self-evident: the quality of life is enviable. The simple assets of good air, plentiful water, forests, mountains, and a culturally-vibrant community combine to offer qualities desired by many who can discover Nelson quite easily. The world is a village; who chooses to be ignorant of what is going on in all the neighbourhoods of the planetary hamlet? If you want knowledge, the information highway will speed you to your target destination.

Once you find what you want, oh liberated consumer, your money is the passport to living where you desire for self and family. Nelson is a wonderful community in which to raise children, and raise your consciousness among like-minded progressive, affluent citizens. Yes, there is a tone of irony in that last phrase.

The poor coming to Nelson in large numbers, with more in-migrants arriving in poverty as the years pass, is a more mysterious phenomenon . Our winters are inhospitable (more so than in Victoria) and employment prospects near-zero; zero is the vacancy rate.

Why come here if you are miserably poor and homeless or on the run from abuse, or simply unemployed, or have mental-health issues? You hear about Nelson in the wonderfully-effective grape-vine that connects nomads across our nation and even in other English-speaking lands. You may have heard of us as an arts town, a town for outdoor recreation, a town with a lifestyle for the new-ager, the hippie, the alternative tribal consciousness. The internet is a marvellous rumour-mill.

People come for individual reasons, of course, but there are common denominators. Nelson’s reputation as a welcoming place to live, a place with better social services than other towns its size, and a tribe of street-culture-collaborators among whom poor homeless folk will not feel outcast – those are intangibles but very real.

City Council here narrowly rejected a panhandling by-law. The councillors who voted against the bylaw are hopeful that Nelson’s Street Culture Collaborative will render the panhandling problems here less abrasive and make the law unnecessary.

Although I have been assured, by city councillors Valerie Warmington and Michael Dailly, that research data reports that Nelson does not have a disproportionate number of poor and mentally-unhealthy on our streets, I am more inclined to trust my own observations.

Also I hear anecdotes that tell me Nelson is peculiar for high numbers of poor nomads arriving in summer time. I was once “on the road” myself in the 1970’s, and I know how word-of-mouth operates among the young and old in love with the romance of the road.

Warmington told me, during an interview for my co-op radio program, that the Gini Co-efficient for Nelson, a statistic measuring inequality, is less favourable than the national average. [see the footnotes**]. I believe that to be the case. But the rich are not necessarily neanderthals in politics nor determined to bash the poor. Our wealthy elite here strike notably liberal poses on issues of poverty and law, and so far our, police are not put in the same position as their peers in a town like Abbottsford. The homeless story here has not yet made national headlines.

Nelson, Mecca of social services

“If you build it, they will come.” This useful phrase explains how our community, that is precocious for services to the underprivileged, cannot keep abreast of demand. Build a healthy infrastructure for the disadvantaged of the community, and word will travel cross-country of the relatively-better situation here.

Supply is unlikely to meet demand for very long, because demand rises every time new poor folk come here to live. They come because they hear we have good services. And the wheel goes round again…

There is an often-heard story on our streets that in other parts of BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, social services and/or police rid their towns of vagrants by giving them a one-way bus ticket to… Well, I better just leave that in the realm of unproved rumour. Again, there is anecdote, and there is sociologists’ study, and the two are not always in agreement. One uses one’s intuition and experience as well.

Conclusions: does it get better?

I am a member of the vanishing middle class, the people between rich and poor. Those like me in Nelson feel the situation growing uncomfortable; I have this conversation with my peers. No one is celebrating the changes I’m describing here. The word “progress” is not typically applied.

History has brought human society on earth to a perilous passage. There I will stop myself, before I’m repeating old complaints against humanity’s failures over our history to choose better paths.

Capitalism’s failure to share wealth, its systemic effect of impoverishing an underclass, is catching up with Western societies. Today, all societies on Earth are within the Western economic orbit. One fact is relentless: the underclass is growing. I’ve supplied several online references in this column for anyone wanting to take their investigations of global capitalist economics further.

What comes after the collapse/darkness/resurrection of our unsustainable planetary civilization is anybody’s guess. For more on that topic, I recommend reading the last three sources I have cited. Pessimism is the easy option, the one I fight to resist.


**Homelessness reports and information about the Gini coefficient.


http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/01/28/BC-Income-Inequality/ or


https://censusmapper.ca/maps/165 ]

A link to Eisenstein:


Readings about capitalism and a Future Narrative:




Other News Stories