Which level of government is responsible for homeless, drug-addicted prostitutes? This sounds like the opening for a sick version of one of those lame jokes about the Canadian obsession for intergovernmental correctness.
But, in fact, it is a very real conundrum, especially for policy-makers concerned with the vitality of our inner-city neighbourhoods. The debate about Vancouver’s safe injection site is a case in point. Just why is it that its future is to be determined solely by the federal government in Ottawa?
The answer, of course, is that the federal government has jurisdiction over criminal law and harmful drugs. Such laws probably are more relevant to what happens on the streets of many of our inner-city neighbourhoods than many municipal by-laws that are explicitly concerned with streets. In short, it is the federal government that seems to hold much of the jurisdictional authority for what is sometimes called “urban disorder.”
Canadians justifiably pride ourselves in being less concerned with disorder and more concerned with attacking the so-called “root causes” of social problems. Some advocate a larger role for the federal government in attacking root causes, especially in social housing. But the reality is that our provinces are the levels of government best equipped for social policy. Some already have sophisticated programs in place.
Of course, these programs need more resources and they need to be better coordinated with each other. But the solution here is not to bring in the federal government. It is to insist that the federal government provide more tax room for provinces to cope with the enormity of the problems for which they are responsible.
Is there a role for municipalities in attacking the root causes of social problems? Not really. If we want municipalities to be responsible for social programs we shall have to make them bigger than they are already are and give them a range of taxing authority that even most mayors are not asking for. Otherwise, there will be “a race to the bottom,” with all but the richest municipalities trying to export their social problems to their neighbours.
What municipalities are good at (or should be good at) is regulating the use of public spaces (within the context of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and providing an appropriate array of collective services to support a high quality of urban life.
Streets that are populated by drug-addicted, homeless prostitutes are evidence that the quality of urban life in that area is pretty low? What is to be done and which level of government is to do it?
Let’s acknowledge that our provincial governments need to go after the root causes of the problem. They need to provide integrated services that probably start with drug rehabilitation programs, subsidized housing, and community-based services that are closely connected with the housing. Given other demands on provincial resources, this is asking a lot, but these are the tough decisions that provincial governments have to make.
But what about the selling of sexual services by someone who is not mentally-disturbed, homeless, or drug-addicted? Right now the Criminal Code makes it illegal to engage in public solicitation for such services and to operate a brothel. Meanwhile, municipal governments are licensing massage parlours and escort services, whose advertisements are quite legal.
Why shouldn’t municipalities be making the rules about what happens on their streets and why shouldn’t they be able to regulate and license brothels and safe injection sites so that they can act to try to prevent the obvious deterioration of some of their most sensitive neighbourhoods?
American responses to problems of urban disorder have often involved harsh police crackdowns with few, if any, attempts to attack root causes. We need provincial action on root causes, not more debates about who is responsible.
But Canadians are also justified in expecting that, when programs in place to provide housing and community support for people who are indigent, mentally ill, or drug addicted, then municipal government should be able to enforce by-laws preventing people from sleeping in streets or accosting passers-by for money.
Better root cause social policies will mean that we will have far fewer drug-addicted homeless prostitutes than we have now. But municipalities are likely to still need more authority to control what happens on public streets and sidewalks, places that are so important for the quality of urban life for everybody.