"Despite a strong political will to house the homeless, it will take much longer than 10 years to overcome this problem," Glen Argan writes. Photo by Michael Swan

Glen Argan: It will take more than 10 years to end homelessness in Canada

  • June 1, 2018

Since 2009, Edmonton, along with 12 other Canadian cities, has been implementing a Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. Unlike other “plans,” this one does not merely set a target and hope it comes true; solid work is being done to provide housing and prevent future homelessness.

The last count of homeless people found that the number of those living on the street has fallen 43 per cent from its 2008 peak. In Calgary, a city with much faster population growth than Edmonton, a similar plan has stabilized the number of homeless people.

Despite a strong political will to house the homeless, it will take much longer than 10 years to overcome this problem. A variety of reasons account for homelessness, reasons that can range from family violence to chronic unemployment. But a recent Vatican document points to “myopic egoism” and corporate greed as also playing a role.

The document released May 17 explores the structure of the world’s financial and economic markets which, it says, have a growing influence on the well-being of humanity. The global financial system needs a more solid ethical foundation and a more effective regulatory structure.

The document — Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System (Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones) — was produced by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The document — let’s call it OPQ for short — decries financial speculation, offshore tax havens, bonuses for corporate executives based on short-term profits, government corruption and various financial instruments which promise short-term gain and ignore the common good. Political and economic power should be held at a distance from each other so economic elites do not also control the political levers, the document says.

The deepest problem OPQ identifies is that the growing dominance of financial markets separates income from work. Work is a good thing for the individual person and for society as a whole. But because vast fortunes are typically made through investments which contribute nothing to the common good, work and workers become marginalized.

The result is that much of the world’s population is not exploited so much as it is excluded from the economy and society itself. Material things lose their value and a culture of waste is promoted. Extending the logic of OPQ, one could say that people themselves are waste unless they contribute to the maximization of profits.

Employment in this scenario will be increasingly found, if anywhere, in low-wage service industries. Homelessness will be intractable. One might question whether the situation is, in fact, that bleak, but an all-consuming emphasis on profits will surely leave many people on the margins of society.

One might object and ask whether the Church knows anything about economics and why it claims the right to tell us what to do with our investments. Similar questions have long been asked about Church teachings on life and sexuality.

The answer is that human well-being anticipates the fullness of God’s kingdom, a kingdom which the Church is called to establish in every sphere of human enterprise. No area of human action exists outside of ethical principles which promote human well-being, principles to which the Church calls everyone.

The conservative Acton Institute objected to OPQ, noting that the financial system is already heavily regulated. Such regulation promotes a legalistic approach to morality, the institute says, in which people believe if they respect the letter of the law, they have fulfilled their moral obligations. As well, more regulation would deter the establishment of small businesses which cannot cope with excessive regulation.

One can see the point of the Acton Institute’s objection. Real economic activity is driven by initiative and creativity. But does the institute really believe it is morally legitimate for the wealthy to have offshore tax havens which remove financial resources from the countries in which they were created? Should we just tolerate, in the interest of deregulation, massive ripoffs like the sub-prime mortgage scandal which threw the world’s economy into deep recession in 2007?

If, for example, Canadian cities are to end homelessness, reining in the inordinate power of the global financial industry will be part of the solution. The problem is not capitalism itself, but rather the greed it often produces. The Vatican’s call for ethical frameworks which inform both individual consciences and regulatory structures is a step toward a world which better respects the dignity of the human person.

(Argan lives in Edmonton and is interim editor of Living with Christ.)

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