What is Homelessness? A Glimpse into a Localized Global Issue

Homelessness is an ongoing, complex issue experienced by 100 million people worldwide today.1  Although there is no absolute definition of homelessness, it is commonly defined as the condition in which people have no access to safe, permanent housing.2  When we think of people who are homeless, we often think of them beyond our reach, and may even affiliate them in those living in impoverished nations.  However, homelessness is a seriously misunderstood problem.  The reality is that Canada carries a considerable homeless population, as many as 30, 000 Canadians on any given night,3 and around 400 of them are within our own locality, Kingston and the Frontenac County.4  Homelessness, then, is not simply a far-distanced issue but one that is very nearby.

Poverty and homelessness go hand-in-hand.5  Difficult economic circumstances such as low-income jobs, unemployment, and rising property fees and living costs are barriers that force individuals and entire families to move out of their unaffordable homes and seek for alternative shelter.6  In Kingston, a significant 15% of households earn less than the low income cut-off (LICO)7 which values around $30,487 for a family of four.8  Furthermore, an average 2-bedroom unit in Kingston is deemed unaffordable for nearly 30% of the city population.9  Without adequate income and reasonably priced housing, people have limited economic freedom, as much of their income is devoted to other needs such as food and clothing.

In addition, various social factors root and exacerbate the situation of homelessness, including the lack of social inclusion across gender, race and sexuality, poorly funded services, and a weak sense of community and acceptance.  A large proportion of the homeless in Kingston are identified as youth, Aboriginal, mixed-gender, and or mentally ill,10 and more than half of them are women.11  Scholars argue that Canada’s neoliberal federal agenda performs poorly in terms of its funding towards community organizations that support homeless youth.12

Addressing homelessness can be overwhelming, misunderstood, or even considered unnecessary as there is a public notion that the homeless are unworthy, lazy, and undeserving.13  I too, am guilty for once harbouring these thoughts as I can recount several times when I passed homeless people on the streets, feeling unsure and helpless.  However, we must understand that people do not choose to be homeless with its dehumanizing, unbearable conditions.14  It is rather a reflection of our societal failure for being unable to give the much-needed assistance for people at risk of losing secure housing who then have no choice but live on the streets, in abandoned cars and buildings, and less visibly, in temporary shelters and friends’ homes.15

So then, what can be done?  Although homelessness is far more complex than what I have described, helping the local homeless in Kingston is possible.  One crucial step is to be informed.  We need to understand that homelessness occurs from several factors often beyond one’s control.   Also, knowing that university student housing demands contribute to the rising costs of housing would create an understanding of how localized and interconnected the Kingston homeless are with students just like you and I.  Another important contribution that would help address homelessness is to volunteer in shelters or food-delivery non-profit organizations such as Loving Spoonful and Queen’s Soul Food.  

Homelessness is a globally widespread issue but one that is also right outside our doors.  The fact that homelessness numbers are increasing in Canada16 should encourage us to take action now.  As responsible students, citizens of Kingston, individuals of the world, we should be part of the effort in combating homelessness by replacing its violence, stress, and degradation with compassion, companionship, and inclusion.

- Sari Ohsada

Kingston Needs More Affordable Housing

The increasing post-secondary student population in Kingston is one of the main causes of the lack of affordable housing in the Kingston area.

When I first heard the above statement over a year ago, I was surprised to say the least. I was listening to a Kingston man who had frequented several Kingston shelters talk about his experiences using those services. He managed to shed light on a part of the issue I had never even considered. When I thought of homelessness, I thought of things like unemployment, lack of transitional support services for incarcerated individuals, and issues with the welfare system in Ontario. I didn’t think about university students.

It makes sense when you think about it, though. Kingston has two post-secondary institutions where the majority of students live off-campus, and students have taken over most rental housing in the downtown core.  Besides that, as enrolment increases, the University District expands and students take over more and more of Kingston. Housing prices inflate to match what students are willing to pay. Thus, housing that used to be affordable for low-income individuals or families to rent becomes too expensive, because it is instead being targeted towards the student market.

I volunteered with several homeless shelters in the Toronto area in high school and had several eye-opening conversations with people who had been homeless for years. I thought I understood the issues that surround affordable housing and social support systems for those who are homeless.  But I had never considered my role as a student living in the University District in a house that was probably once low-income housing. Failure to do so has prevented me from fully understanding the problem or beginning to properly address it.

So what now? Where was I supposed to go from here?
I started looking into existing programs and services in Kingston.

Currently, Kingston’s housing vacancy rate is around 1.7%. A “healthy vacancy rate”, evaluated by the province of Ontario, is 3%.

The average rate per month for a 1-bedroom apartment in Kingston is the 4th highest in the province (behind Toronto, Ottawa, and Barrie); it’s really no surprise that over 75% of homeless people in Kingston say that the main barrier to being housed is that the rent is too high.

Kingston needs affordable housing. It needs more of it, and it needs it now. Not to keep throwing stats at you, but the average wait time for social housing in Kingston is 54 months.   

Affordable housing has been an ongoing project in Kingston since the early 2000s, but funding has been sporadic and progress slow.  So far, the majority of new social housing units have been municipally funded or introduced by local non-profits such as Home Base Housing. While effective and targeted at specific age groups and their needs, there is still the overarching problem of too few homes for the number of people on the waiting list.  The municipal government lacks sufficient funding to be able to expand these programs sufficiently. The provincial and federal governments need to be supporting the initiatives of municipalities like Kingston that are outside the reach of bigger cities like Toronto and Ottawa, to ensure that the needs of its citizens are being met.

While Kingston’s temporary and transition housing services have been dramatically enhanced over the past few years, from the Kingston Youth Shelter’s Transitions to Ryandale’s Transition House, these services are just that: temporary. The idea behind transition housing is to offer affordable accommodations to people for a period of approximately one year, during which time people are provided with life-skills training and support to help people identify and work to move beyond the barriers that have kept them homeless.

These kinds of services are increasing in Kingston, providing unique support for people who are in and out of shelters on a regular basis. But I don’t believe that long-term change is going to be able to occur if the next step is not present. Those in transition housing need something to transition into, and for that to happen Kingston is going to need many more units of stable, affordable, liveable housing.

-Lauren De Souza




The Global Impacts of Corporate Social Responsibility

When I was a kid, I decided I was going to change the world someday. In elementary school, we started to learn about poverty and things like volunteer work and charitable organizations, and they give off the impression that changing the world is just that simple. So as I grew up, I would try to look for ways to donate or give back to my community or abroad, not fully understanding the organizations to which I was giving my money, but feeling good about giving it. A lot of people feel the same way, and major companies understand that their consumers think like this and can use this to their advantage. Through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), companies are promoting to their consumer base that they can change the world through what they choose to purchase. Its aim is to create socially conscious consumers.  They play upon our need to make a positive impact, and shine a positive light on the good they’re doing to encourage us to buy their products. Sometimes the work they do in developing countries is amazing, and we can feel really good about where our money is going. Other times, though, CSR is just a way to keep up appearances. 

I’ll be honest: I love TOMS shoes. They’re comfortable and versatile, and I have two pairs. So when I saw a video about the real- life impacts their donations were having on the communities in Africa, I was pretty upset. The million or so shoes they had donated were going to the communities, but many communities already had local shoe stores or shoemakers, and these donations put these local businesses at risk of going out of business. Which would you choose: a free pair of donated shoes or locally made shoes you’ll have to spend money on? Local businesses are the backbone of developing communities; they need to be supported and built up in order for the community to thrive, and the actions of TOMS and similar initiatives threaten the sustainability of these communities and instead make them reliant on the goodwill of developed countries. 

So even though TOMS did uphold their promise to make the donations, their failure to properly research the locations meant their actions did more harm than good. CSR has been hailed as a creative way to balance business and development interests, but the problem has become more complex than CSR was designed to handle.  So how do we know when CSR is trustworthy? You have to do your research. Our purchases are investments, and our money can make an impact. Consumers have the power to choose to invest in something that will have positive impacts on communities or will privilege developed-country businesses at the expense of local ones. Look for transparency within the organizations. Read year-end reports. Be critical. And most importantly, realize the impact your purchases are making.  Consumers have a voice, and each and every sale can make a difference in the way CSR is applied in companies worldwide.

-Lauren Desouza

What’s so universal about human rights?

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, as a promise to uphold basic and inherent rights for all people in the aftermath of World War II. For over six decades the Declaration has been used as an international standard to hold states accountable for their actions and to advocate for basic service provisioning and human equality. 

There is no doubt that all humans should enjoy access to education, health services, and a sense of security. These are some of what we would call basic human rights. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone would disagree that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article I). This commonly held belief has led to these human rights being labelled as universal, freely applied to all national and cultural contexts. But can a concept such as human rights, deeply imbued with Western origins, properly address “human rights violations” in the Global South? More pressing, what are the implications of imposing a Western human rights discourse in inappropriate cultural contexts?

Take, for example, the highly debated topic of female circumcision/female genital mutilation (FGM). (In many ways, the choice of terminology reveals much about one’s views on different cultural practices – but this is an issue outside the scope of our discussion). Regardless of how we label it, general consensus is that this practice violates human rights to health and safety; it is marked as backward and barbaric, and human rights are supported as the obvious solution. Yet there are significant consequences when Western voices intervene in a culture to say that something is “wrong.” For the present example, human rights are called upon to change legislation and criminalize female circumcision/FGM. This action can take female circumcision/FGM out of hospitals and into unsanitized and unprofessional settings – essentially making the practice more dangerous than before.

The above example demonstrates how implementing universal human rights can adversely affect a population that is trying to be helped. Arguably, a better approach to female circumcision/FGM would be to provide culturally appropriate education on the health and safety risks that the practice creates. Parallel to this approach would be a willingness to understand why certain populations continue to perform female circumcision/FGM – what traditional and cultural meanings are attached to it? This dialogue could then act as an entry point into discussions of how to mitigate the risks involved, how to eliminate a harmful practice without eliminating socio-cultural meanings at the behest of Western imposition. 

Human rights, after all, are a product of the Western imagination. While it is all too common for the West to intervene in the South, the human rights discourse cannot be applied universally; to do so may actually result in more harm than good. The example of female circumcision/FGM illustrates the dangers of intervening without regard for cultural context. In other cases, when historical considerations of colonialism are forgotten, human rights may be downright rejected as a form of contemporary Western imperialism (see the issue of LGBTQ rights in Uganda, for example). While the intentions of human rights advocates are certainly pure, it is paramount to reconsider the concept’s ascribed universality. The case for a culturally appropriate approach is strong and certainly necessary if basic human dignity is to be upheld – in all possible definitions of the term. 

- Zoe Share

Food and Free Trade

I just finished reading Stolen Harvest, which is a book written by Vandana Shiva that takes a look at the industrialization of the global food system. Since I am working Q.EWB’s food systems portfolio this year, I thought I would share and ‘unpack’ a few noteworthy quotes from the book. The author’s main argument is that food security, sovereignty and sustainability are threatened by globalisation and free trade.

‘Free Trade’ (not to be confused with ‘Fair Trade’) is the increasingly dominant model for international trade in today’s world. Essentially, free trade does exactly what its name suggests; it allows corporations to engage in business with as few restrictions as possible in order to maximise the efficiency, mobility and ultimate accumulation of capital. ‘Trade liberalization’ is the process of implementing laws and policies that remove ‘barriers to trade’ in pursuit of a free trade global economy that is guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.

Free trade is codified within the mandate of the world’s central trade power structure, the World Trade Organization (WTO). Critics of this regulatory body, like Shiva, argue that it enforces divisive trade policies that perpetuate and widen the socioeconomic gap between the Global North and the Global South. In spite of these critiques, free trade continues to be the economic approach of choice, as more and more free trade agreements are being negotiated and signed into force.

In the context of the global food system, Shiva does a good job of defining the central problem associated with free trade:

“The notion of rights has been turned on its head under globalization and free trade. The right to produce for oneself or consume according to cultural priorities and safety concerns has been rendered illegal according to new trade rules. The right of corporations to force-feed citizens of the world with culturally inappropriate and hazardous foods has been made absolute. The right to food, the right to safety, the right to culture are all being treated as trade barriers that need to be dismantled.”

Essentially, free trade places corporate rights above human rights. Free trade agreements like the recently-completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the more established General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treat corporate profits as paramount, and contain rules that prevent governments and citizens from enacting laws or engaging in behaviours that could interfere with corporations’ ability to earn profits. Shiva provides ample examples of what this looks like in practice within the context of the global food system.

Another critical balance that must be maintained is between economic growth and environmental sustainability. Shiva argues that a pure free trade economy cannot come into being without sacrificing the future of our environment:

 “Since all environmental regulations restrict environmentally destructive commerce, they are trade-restrictive according to the WTO, hence illegal under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade… Since environmental deregulation is an essential part of trade liberalization, “free trade” and the protection of the environment cannot coexist.”

Shiva supports her case against the commodification of food with a number of environmentally-based arguments, ranging from the threat of “superpests / superweeds,” to the dangers of intensified chemical input use, to the collapse of marine ecosystems.

Another dramatic downside to free trade is that it prevents governments from restricting what types of products may be imported and exported across its borders:

 “According to Article XI of GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade], any restrictions on imports and exports is illegal, even though restrictions might be necessary for cultural, ecological, and economic reasons” [although there are provisions for select economic-based exceptions].

Shiva uses the industrialization of India’s beef industry as an example to illustrate how multinational corporations (MNCs) can completely subvert a society’s culture, environment and economy and siphon profits away from the Global South and into the Global North.

The main focus of the latter portion of Stolen Harvest is the biotechnology industry. Shiva examines the dangers of genetic engineering and the socioeconimc injustices arising from the patenting of living organisms under the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPPS). Above all, Shiva condemns the environment of impunity in which MNCs are allowed to operate by setting their own standards for the industry:

“In the corporate-controlled food system, the same company may perform the research, sell the seeds, and provide the data about its products. Thus, the patient, diagnostician, and physician are rolled into one, and there is no objective basis of assessment of yield performance or ecological impact.”

Shiva picks apart the four main arguments that the biotechnology uses to defend genetic engineering, and finishes her case with a call to action. She ultimately calls on citizens “to turn the rules of globalization and free trade around, and make trade subservient to the higher values of the protection of the earth and people’s livelihoods.” This, Shiva believes, is the only way to achieve food security, sovereignty and sustainability.

*             *            *

A few parting words: This is clearly a (very) one-sided analysis of free trade and its impacts on the global food system, which is important to keep in mind. The book provides many more specific case studies and a much more cohesive argument than I have summarised here. I’ve simply commented on a few of Shiva’s key points that really stood out to me. You can find Stolen Harvest online here: http://www.amazon.ca/Stolen-Harvest-Hijacking-Global-Supply/dp/0896086070


-Brett Crowley