Saturday, January 22, 2011

Innovation and the Consumer

Yesterday I was reading a few recent articles on the Poverty Insights (.org) website. Several articles talked optimistically about creating a consumer mentality around ending homelessness. If people could only get excited about social change… if innovative solution weren’t being ignored by politicians… if only agencies weren’t locked by policy into the band-aid solutions of the past… if only… if only.
One article recounted J.J. Roberts' experience at an electronics trade show, (a venue where innovation is celebrated) he said how great it would be if consumers had the same enthusiasm for antipoverty initiatives. I have to confess that attending a technology trade show would not garner much enthusiasm from me. I cannot afford such toys and have little interest in learning the level of tech-pertise necessary to maximize their potential uses. Obviously the reason enthusiasm is so high at such events is due to the fact that almost all attendee have a passion for the subject, and are consumers of the products. David Henderson’s response, “Anti-Innovation” reminds us that the end user (socioeconomically disadvantaged) of social innovation isn’t the consumer; the consumer, by his estimation, is the bureaucracies which advocate for, and administer to, the poor. I would like to counter that position by suggesting the true consumers, are the citizen’s and taxpayers of Canada (and the US) We pay for the products of the shelter industry both directly (taxes) and indirectly.
There has in fact been a lot of innovation in the poverty support and housing industry… not all of it good, but much of it worth adopting. Edmonton’s E4C does a wonderful job providing supportive subsidized housing for people with special needs. British Columbia Housing has large stores of subsidized housing, some good... some not so good…. But they do a pretty decent job housing low income seniors. Newfoundland also has aggressive re-housing programs for seniors and medicals. The Ontario government is trying a more client focused funding model…. By client I believe the program is referring to the agencies not individual clients. But it will give agencies more flexibility in how and where funds are being spent, which ultimately allows them to use funds for moving their clients forward.
After two years of working from the street level with the homeless and service providers I can tell you this is a good step. So much of the protocols which agencies were being saddled with make zero economic sense. In one province social services will support a (functional) female, in the shelter at $93 per day. Yet that same woman could expect to get $810 per month (highest rate in Canada in a provence with lowest overall cost of living) for all her need outside the shelter ($535 for housing, $275 for everything else). The government could bring the amount to a living wage by adding $390 which would provide the welfare recipient with $1200 per month … modest but certainly do-able and still $1600 a month less then it is costing to keep her in a shelter.
These numbers are by no means the exception, in most provinces the $100 per day cost of sheltering a person is shared across several different service providers. Add to this the impact on healthcare, police services and corrections; it is certainly time for a rethink. As the consumer in this equation I want to see people out of shelters and in permanent affordable housing. Programs like those run by the Calgary Homeless Foundation, are matching people with affordable (and suitable) housing. The better the fit between location and client the longer the residency will last and the more money I will save as a tax payer. As consumers we should all be enthusiastic about seeing such innovations adopted right across Canada.
Always remember the first step to ending homelessness is through affordable housing initiatives and the best of these is Habitat for Humanity… please do what you can to support you local chapter.

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