KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Paul O'Hara has been a social worker at the North End Community Health Centre for 35 years. Working tirelessly with people on low incomes, people on welfare, homeless people and youth, he has seen many changes over the years. Sometimes these changes were for the better. Often things changed for the worse.
Just a few more days and Paul will retire.
We talked with Paul about his role in advocacy work, why working for a Community Health Centre was such a great fit, progress and the absence of progress, the politics of poverty, gentrification, homelessness, and much more.
On poverty advocacy and community health centres
The entire focus of Community Health Centres is the health of the community rather than the health of individuals. Their focus is on what is these days referred to as social determinants of health. That has always been part of what the clinic aspired to do. We deliver primary health care. But we want to extend beyond that one-on-one delivery of service to the interest of the broader community and the larger context of health.
I always see my role as supportive. The objective is never to be the advocate for the group, but rather to facilitate a process whereby people can take their own power. At the Community Heath Centre we provide a lot of technical support for work of groups like the Community Advocates Network.
I would never say that we have seen substantial improvements. In small ways, yes.
We have moved away from a time when it wouldn't matter what political party was in charge, they all bought into the idea of a welfare state. They just disagreed about how to get there. But today things have changed significantly. Now no party would embrace the welfare state. We are moving towards a more individualistic point of view.
I have been fortunate, my wages have more than tripled since I first joined the Community Health Centre. But for people on welfare improvement has been insignificant. Welfare hasn't even increased by 10 percent.
Where I have seen change, is the capacity to support youth in the community a little more, through organizations like Phoenix Youth and Ark Outreach. Those organizations didn't exist when I began work at the Community health Centre. I was on my own and I tried to support young people that were on the street. They'd come in to see a doctor. I was kind of doing social casework and I moved away from doing that and helped start Phoenix Youth.
Another are of progress is singe adults who are homeless. Their only point of entry was a shelter, the Salvation Army or Metro Turning Point. We got together and formed Metro Non-Profit Housing Association. They are housing up to 100 people now and own 5 or 6 buildings. That is significant.
All the corner stores in the North End were selling Lysol to people who were abusing it on the street. It was very common, you'd see people poke a hole in the can and get all the gas out, and pour the liquid into the cover of the cap and drink it. We changed that. We stopped corner stores from selling Lysol. I believe that saved people's lives. We saw people die in fires two years in a row, and they were knee deep in Lysol cans in their apartments. The conditions and the ways people were treated were horrific, not that these conditions don't exist now, but we contributed a little bit in making that a bit less of an issue.
We took full advantage of whatever opportunity there was, but there are fewer opportunities now. It is hard to watch that happen. What you are allowed to do with money that is available is much more restricted now than when I was heavy into it, which was really 20 years ago or so. There were ways to access funds that don't exist any more.
I was very disappointed after the NDP formed the government. We did not benefit from the NDP government. I don't blame that on any individual. I think the direction the party took, focusing on the middle class, working families and that sort of jargon, I am all for it, but you must also make room on the bench for those who lack influence or power.
I think that people are ignorant, it's not that they don't care. I think where we need to focus a bit more, and be a bit more strategic about is engaging the community at large, and change the dialogue. Jackie Torrens and some of the projects she has been working on recently are helpful.
We can't have people like Joanne Bernard stand up and say that people on welfare have been on welfare too long and should be employable. That is totally disrespectful. And untrue. It's very discouraging to hear her talk like that. People on welfare are one of the last groups you are still allowed to bash.
We need to shift that. The only way Joanne Bernard and Stephen McNeil will pay attention is if the general public wants more equity. We have to find a way to get there.
We need politicians to recognize and say that we are not meeting the needs of people in our community ans that we can no longer dump the problem on charity. That's what the Liberals are doing, the NDP did it, and the Conservatives did it before them. They do it because it is convenient. They know they can get away with it.
We have to find a way to shift the conversation about what welfare really means. I am optimistic that youth will help with that.
There is quite a bit of anti-poverty activism that is occurring, which is very good. The only caution I have is that we are not as connected with one another as we could be.
We are basically a very white group, a bit disconnected from issues in the aboriginal community and the black community and the newcomers community. People in these communities have their own focus, and we need to do the reaching out.
On housing and homelessness, gentrification
In terms of homelessness I would say things aren't better. When I first started work shelters would be full in the winter, but there would be a significant shift in the summer. Nowadays no matter what time of the year shelters are more or less full most of the time. That tells you about access. It is directly related to the demise of the national housing strategy.
People don't even want to use the term social housing anymore. That says a lot. I have always felt that (as an affordable housing organization) it is better to own the building. It's there forever. The approach that is taken now is like welfare for developers. Developers don't have to reduce the rent because the market wont accommodate it, they get subsidized by the province to house people at market rent.
I think that the problem has been the inability to accommodate modest income families who need social housing. There are mostly clusters for the absolute poor in high-density units. If the housing was more mixed, and they developed enough housing to accommodate everybody we would not have all these issues. It would provide an opportunity for people on modest incomes to save money for their kids to go to school or for retirement.
It is hard to witness the gentrification process in the North End. When I started work people were afraid to walk on Gottingen Street, now it is a place to live. I don't think the community at large is afraid of gentrification, they'll make room on the bench for everybody. But people certainly don't like being pushed out, which is what is happening. One of my biggest fears is how people on low income are off the radar screen. They really don't matter.
The most important thing
My biggest concern has always been the self-esteem of the people that I work with. Losing your self-esteem hurts the most. When you are hungry the pain gets a little numb in the stomach, and you don't feel it so much, but when you are looked down upon and not respected and don't have a voice...
There is way too much of that. Not having people who are willing to understand or appreciate your predicament and not judge you. That is really hurtful for people and prevents any kind of meaningful change.
But it is convenient to those who control the resources because they can ignore that part of the population.
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