Our common front: end homelessness

By  Gerald Vandezande And Janet Somerville, Catholic Register Special
  • October 12, 2007
{mosimage} Prior to the 2006 federal election, Faith Today, the magazine of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, published the response of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to a question it had put to him: “What role do you think faith should play in developing public policy, and what is the place of religious institutions in contemporary Canadian society?”

Harper’s reply read, in part, as follows: “Canada is a multicultural and pluralistic society, but this does not mean that faith has to be excluded from public life. Rather, it means that those of different faiths and no faith should seek areas of common agreement based on their different perspectives: . Religious institutions — churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, as well as para church organizations like faith-based charities — play a vital role in Canadian society. Churches and religious charities are active in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers and visiting prisoners. Church and faith-based schools educate hundreds of thousands of Canadian children. And charities... help Canadians share with the developing world. A Conservative government would recognize the vital work done by religious institutions and ensure that religious charities are eligible to participate in government programs on the same basis as other charities and non-governmental organizations.”

{sidebar id=1}It is indeed an important principle that “those of different faiths and no faith should seek areas of common agreement based on their different perspectives.”

Since that election, there has been a great deal of conferring, strategizing and goal-selection among activist citizens with a passion for social justice, rooted either in religious faith or in a compassionate secular framework. They have uncovered some very strong “areas of common agreement,” and they intend to give those shared convictions strong political legs in the next federal election, whenever it occurs.

One declaration that gives voice to this growing consensus is The Ottawa Manifesto Regarding Homelessness in Canada. First published in the Ottawa Citizen as a full-page ad on April 3, the manifesto resoundingly names an agreement reached by several hundred front-line workers from across Canada who gathered at the invitation of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada for a National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness at Street Level.

In Canada, homelessness is the most drastic and disabling symptom of a level of poverty that simply should not be tolerated in a country that has Canada’s resources, skills and ethical traditions. In the words of the manifesto, here is one unshakeable “common agreement” that confronts governments, citizens and religious believers simultaneously: “Justice and mercy define good government. . . . Homelessness must be a priority for policy-makers across Canada concerned with justice and mercy.”

Citizens and politicians alike clearly owe it to Canada’s collective conscience to initiate and implement quality affordable housing projects wherever needed and possible, whether in big cities, small communities or on reserves where some aboriginal Canadians suffer from lethally substandard housing.  

With support from the millions of citizens who understand this imperative, generous and stewardly government programs can substantially alleviate and, sooner rather than later, effectively eliminate homelessness and the disabling poverty that is its root cause.

If Harper truly plans to take seriously the “areas of common agreement” that he urges citizens of differing faiths to seek and to find, the decision not to tolerate homelessness in Canada is as rock-bottom a shared conviction as anyone could name.

Strong forward motion on the crisis of homelessness, and of the non-affordability of decent housing for many who are not currently out on the street, is politically and economically possible. But it will take decisive, creative, life-changing, priority-shifting political action. For example: why couldn’t Parliament allocate 50 per cent of the annual budget surplus to fight homelessness and other disabling aspects of poverty in Canada?

Clearly, the social health and human well-being of poor and powerless neighbours is worthy of visionary political leadership that is motivated by living faith and by the consistent practice of national core values, such as mutual respect and mutual responsibility, in the non-partisan service of the common good.

If Harper and his associates will use their considerable power in Parliament to demonstrate creative leadership in the struggle for affordable homes for all, their initiative will deserve the honest support of members of other parties and other levels of government — and Canadians will expect and reward such non-partisan support. Furthermore, the skills and passions of thousands of front-line community workers in various action networks across Canada stand ready to turn good new policies into concrete, creative local achievements.

Different faiths in common agreement, leading to communally supported action? A great vision indeed: a great hope for any society. To discover how close at hand is such a possibility, even in this diverse country, let Canada’s senior government unite its too often fragmented talents in a great project aimed at secure, fully adequate housing for all.  The response, from many citizens of many faiths, will be a resounding one.

(Vandezande is a volunteer spokesperson of the Campaign Against Child Poverty. Somerville is the former general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches.)  

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