How capitalism in winter puts a price on life
author: marty grande-sherbert | oped editor
In short, every winter gives me another reason to hope capitalism freezes over forever. Let me give you the background to that sentiment.
For us here in Saskatchewan, the unusually cold polar vortex hasn’t changed much. I think many of us have even gotten a little bit cocky when it comes to the cold, boasting that it doesn’t even phase us and feeling a strange sense of schadenfreude when people from usually warmer cities start feeling intimidated by anything below minus 20 degrees. We’re veterans here, and we have nothing to fear – except that some of us do.
We aren’t unbothered by the cold of winter just because we’re Canadian – we also have our wealth to thank for that. There are people in Saskatchewan who are seriously affected by cold weather, who see it as no laughing matter – people whose lives, in fact, are put in danger every time the conditions outside are below freezing. These are the people in Saskatchewan who experience homelessness, and in a society that isolates and increasingly marginalizes homeless folks, it is easy to forget that every year they struggle for their lives.
Let’s think about the last time you were outside in the past few weeks. I’ll go first: I just came into my office from the cold to write this piece. Because of the multitude of privileges that are propping me up every day, though, (boiling down to the wealth and education that allows me to live close to and get a ride to campus), I only had to take a short walk from a car to the front of the Riddell entrance – it probably took two minutes of outdoor exposure at most. Even so, I forgot to wear gloves out of the house, and about fifteen minutes later my fingers still feel a slight burn.
Now take that knowledge that even a few minutes of this weather can feel unbearable, and apply it to the reality that there are people in Regina – a lot of them – who are at the mercy of that weather all the time. A person without a permanent home runs the risk of “sleeping rough,” or on the street, every day, because of the precariousness or absence of their shelter. In freezing temperatures, this can be a death sentence, especially without the proper protective gear.
And people do die; in fact, an investigation in Toronto by Toronto Public Health in 2018 found that last year’s winter saw an average of 1.8 deaths per week. This indicates an extremely serious and morally disturbing problem. Imagine if a new disease came each winter that killed almost two people a week, or if two people a week were murdered every time temperatures dropped. Would we not scramble for a cure, or for justice? Yet these freezing deaths have become yearly statistics, things that we actually expect to occur. That is because we’ve delegated these deaths to be the responsibility of charity and failed to be accountable for them as a society.
The point-in-time count by Homelessness Regina in 2018 revealed 286 people in this city who were living without permanent housing, and nineteen of those people who filled out a survey said that they did not know where they would be sleeping that night. The majority of the others could only count on a warm place to sleep because of emergency shelters (91 people), transitional housing (81 people), or the kindness of a friend (85 people). In addition, nearly 80 per cent of the people surveyed were Indigenous, and just over half of those surveyed experienced homelessness for the first time when they were under age eighteen.
These are people who can only count on shelter (if they can do so) because of the work of nonprofits or because they know people who are able to step in and help themselves. These are also people who are largely racialized and profiled, who have little reason to trust police or other arms of government. In other words, while their lives are in danger, there is no one authority who they can trust to be there for them every time.
The reality that people in our city and all over Canada die every year because they don’t have something as simple as a warm bed isn’t just a tragedy; it’s a societal failure and a crime, and this is why I find the idea that capitalism is just or sustainable to simply not hold water. We need to reframe the way we think about issues like this to truly understand the injustice that’s being done by our system – homelessness doesn’t just happen because of poor choices on the individual’s part. It happens because we live in a world where it costs money to survive, where every single safety and comfort we have comes with a price, and where the wealth we’re able to access depends on a whole host of things we can’t control. Some people live in houses alone that could fit ten people. Some people have a house for every season, or houses in multiple countries. Meanwhile, others die the most preventable death we could possibly imagine. I don’t call that unfortunate or even just a “social problem.” I feel like the word that deserves is murder.
Homelessness is a deadly symptom of the way capitalism places higher value on property than it does on human life. According to the Leader–Post, in September 2018, there were 585 vacant lots in Regina, as well as 37 vacant buildings. Looking at any other city in Canada will show you similar results, especially in big cities like Vancouver, found to have about 8,500 unoccupied homes in 2018. The number of people without shelter in 2018 in Regina was just under 300; those vacant lots could be made into housing implemented into Homelessness Regina’s “Housing First” strategy with some still left over. But we use our city’s funds on other things like football stadiums, and of course, taking shelter in an unused vacant property just won’t fly – that’s squatting, and it’s made illegal so that landlords and other authorities protected by police will have the final say on whether or not a person gets to sleep in a bed.
Housing is a human right – or at least it should be. But the way we think about housing and what we call “charity” has effectively made it a privilege, and as long as those with the power and means keep serving their own interests by keeping it that way, they will have real blood on their hands.
In an attempt to conclude on a more hopeful note, if you are able to spread some money around, please donate to the many shelters and initiatives in Regina doing the work to save lives in this cold. May we live to see the day where calling the right to shelter charity is rightfully thought of as absurd.