St. Vincent de Paul members visit the poor and help them out with small amounts to buy groceries and other essentials CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World

Vincentians step up efforts for housing

  • September 26, 2012

TORONTO - Being on the side of the poor means working to make sure the poor won’t always be with us — still poor, still desperate, trapped from generation to generation in a dispiriting cycle, said Society of St. Vincent de Paul Ontario president Jim Paddon.

The St. Vincent de Paul provincial regional council representing some 350 parish councils emerged from its annual meeting in Peterborough in early September recommitted to lobbying all three levels of government on behalf of the poor, pressing particularly for affordable housing.

“We have an obligation. We’re there to serve Jesus in the poor,” said Paddon. “The poor are suffering because of improper or lack of legislation. It (advocacy) is just an extension of what we do.”

Pushing the federal government to have a national housing strategy — Canada is the only industrialized country in the world without one — the provincial government to allow municipalities to zone for more subsidized housing through inclusionary housing by-laws, and municipal governments to incorporate more affordable housing in their official plans doesn’t mean the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is turning into a political player.

“We certainly don’t want to align with a political party. I don’t envision us ever doing that,” said Paddon.

But St. Vincent de Paul members, who visit the poor and help them out with small amounts to buy groceries and other essentials, see how expensive or inadequate housing is crushing families, Paddon said.

The Daily Bread’s Sept. 19 report, “Who’s Hungry: Faces of Hunger,” found that on average food-bank clients spend 71 per cent of their income on rent. The waiting list for subsidized housing in Ontario stands at 150,000.

St. Vincent de Paul members get discouraged when they see not only that they are serving the same people month after month and year after year, but also that they are serving second- and third-generation clients.

“Our members get just as frustrated as anyone,” said Paddon. “You tend to get a little cynical. What we need to do is direct feelings like that toward things like systemic change.”

For more than three years, St. Vincent de Paul has been part of the steering committee for the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, working with religious leaders of all faiths to keep issues of poverty in front of provincial legislators.

Up until now, most of the St. Vincent de Paul advocacy efforts have fallen to its Toronto council.

“It’s a good fit. When you want to talk to politicians, you find them at Queen’s Park,” said Paddon. “And there’s so many government offices located there.”

There are always a few worries that talking to politicians and demanding action for the poor will somehow distract Vincentians from direct service to the poor. But that sort of squeamishness about anything political was not part of the origins of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Paris in the 1830s. Founder Frederic Ozanam used his position as one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time to advocate for the poor and to push for a kind of Catholic democracy which could provide the social justice the French Revolution had failed to produce.

“Our system is always charitable works, addressing what you would call the end results of poverty,” said Paddon.

But by patterning its program more closely on the vision of Ozanam, Vincentians can add a kind of advocacy that is backed up by real, concrete charitable involvement in the lives of poor people, he said.

And there’s more to campaigning for affordable housing than just an economic calculation. The value of a home goes beyond family finances.

“Having a home, what does that mean to a family? I think it plays a huge part,” Paddon said.

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