Homelessness and agriculture: Finding collective solutions to diverse issues

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Person sleeping in underpass of Gardiner Expressway. Photo: Viv Lynch/Flickr

Perhaps it is because I am not that accustomed to walking through the inner city of Toronto or any city for that matter, or perhaps it is because I walked that inner city on some particularly cold and grey days recently… but it was an eyeopener walking from Union Station to Queen's Quay in Toronto.

It is a short few blocks of walking on a cold grey day that bothers me still.

That trip down Bay Street into the underpass of the Gardiner Expressway reminded me of just how many vulnerable people there are in our large and not-so-large cities. And many of them seem to be almost permanently homeless. That day as I walked under the Gardiner, I did not so much see homeless people as I did the items on the street that indicated that a stretch of sidewalk was inhabited and reserved. There were cartons of cardboard, items of clothing, and even a couch. I guess it is the couch that I walked past, pushed against a cold, grey concrete wall as if it was someone's living room, that really brought home that a person -- or perhaps even a few people -- lived and planned to occupy this patch of sidewalk for awhile.

Did that couch indicate more or less a permanent home? Despite the cold? I sure hope not.

Are we all so busy thinking of ourselves that we have forgotten to think of others? Is there no way to deal with homelessness in this country? There are at least 235,000 Canadians per year who chronically or episodically experience homelessness -- but of course the numbers depend on how you count. There may actually be many more. Some national statistics and information are available from the Homeless Hub. 

Youth homelessness is also a growing problem, and hard to witness. The homeless can be young, but all ages are represented on our streets. Many suffer from substance use or mental health issues. Some are low-income families who are living on the margins -- and lost the roof that might have helped them remain competitive in a tough society.

What does this have to do with agriculture? Maybe not much, and maybe a whole lot.

What keeps coming to mind is that we have lots of homeless people in Canada -- and many, many "peopleless homes" across Canada. In Vancouver alone it is estimated that there are more than 21,000 empty residences. In cities like Toronto, some groups, such as Raising the Roof, are trying to make a difference by matching the homeless with vacant houses. There are also organizations lobbying for affordable housing. And of course many, many shelters. There are also ventures such Sole Foods in Vancouver that link urban farms and homelessness.

As I walked that stretch of street in Toronto, I reflected.

Across Canada there are many smaller communities trying to buttress their populations, hoping that people will see advantage in living in a small town. A lot of those empty homes are in urban centres, but many that are actually not being counted are in small rural communities where the rural population is decimated by land and corporate concentration. Homes are often left to crumble as small-town real estate agents try to make a sale.

We have many rural communities that need residents to help towns survive. There are many farms that need workers. And from Cape Breton through to Saskatchewan and B.C., there are many homes in small communities that sit empty because they cannot be sold.

There are also huge tracts of agricultural land, where no one actually lives: huge empty spaces, with patches of bush indicating where farm houses once stood, or still stand in various stages of decay. Some lands are owned by numbered companies -- others are just very large -- too large -- farms. When it comes to climate change and agriculture, it is becoming increasingly clear that farm policies are going to have to break with high-input farming and reduce the carbon footprint. If we want to do better at producing our own food, those large tracts of land will need more farmers, not fewer. Maybe those living on the couch under the Gardiner won't have the option of considering a life in rural Canada, but can we not begin to put in place policies that will find space for others who would willingly consider it? Perhaps a database might help match urban residents who would willingly give up their places for a quieter life.

In some communities, there is also another growing problem -- that of retiring farmers seeking to find a younger generation of farmers to take over. And there are many, many, young landless individuals who want to farm. Meanwhile the federal government is showing no signs of implementing a national food policy to deal with climate change, food quality, or to support family farms and rural renewal.

Increasingly, we are hearing how urban food forests, and simply walking in nature, can reduce anxiety and support positive mental health and physical well-being. We hear success stories related to how those who have succumbed to substance use and various addictions can be supported by feeling productive, reconnecting with nature and the land. And how living sustainably will increasingly mean living local.

The homeless are among the most vulnerable in society. Many have been pushed to the brink and marginalized because the competitiveness of our society has pushed them aside -- perhaps pushed them out of jobs, out of homes, off of land, or out of communities, or they have fallen between the cracks of an inadequate social safety network. To ignore the issue and the many solutions we could provide in both urban and rural communities makes us all increasingly vulnerable.

There is a need for a massive re-think about how we build community in this country, rural and urban communities that are resilient, healthy, and work towards strengthening self-reliance in the face of climate change. If we get down to it, along the way we might even be able to address some social issues like homelessness and marginalization.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Viv Lynch/Flickr

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