Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Epistemic Geographies of Homelessness

For the last couple of years I have been working to better understand the epistemic geographies constituting the politics of homelessness in Canada. After following the rise of policy models such as Housing First it became more apparent to me that calculative practices, particularly ones that measure social costs, have proven instrumental in transforming social service systems addressing chronic homelessness. Damian Collins and Jalene Anderson (both at the University of Alberta) and I recently published an article in Social Science & Medicine – entitled Homelessness, Bedspace and the Case for Housing First in Canada – that offers a preliminary attempt at mapping this calculative geography. We arrived at the term ‘bedspace’ to describe this political spatiality. Abstract and link to the article is below.

Homelessness, Bedspace and the Case for Housing First in Canada

Abstract

The act of problem formation is integral to the policymaking process. Moreover, the process by which certain situations, experiences or events are rendered problematic hinges upon the places, spaces and networks through which the issue is made visible and intelligible to policy makers and decision makers. In this paper, we explore these epistemic geographies by unpacking one such example e the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi study, a federally funded, $110 million field trial of the Housing First (HF) model. HF prioritizes rapid rehousing of the chronically homeless, followed by separate support and treatment services. The model has become widespread in Canada since 2005, based in large part on understandings of its cost-effectiveness. In this article, we utilize At Home/Chez Soi as an illustrative case for examining how ‘chronic homelessness’ is translated into a discourse of costs and benefits, and given an accounting value, through a series of translations. This problematization advances a particular logic, what we refer to as ‘bedspace’.

Whither the public university?

Athabasca University has received much press as of late, most of it negative (see here and here). This media attention stems from concerns regarding the future financial situation of the university. For those who may be unfamiliar with Athabasca University, it is an open university dedicated to the removal of barriers to post-secondary learning through distance education. This social mission makes Athabasca University unique in Canada. This is what makes the current situation newsworthy. It is not just another university in financial trouble. Athabasca University embodies a set of social values of fundamental importance in Canadian society and its financial uncertainty says a lot about the commitment of the previous provincial government to these values. Hence it is important to put this negative press in the proper political context to adequately understand causes and effects as well as what is at stake.

Athabasca University, like a majority of post-secondary institutions in Canada, is a publicly-funded university. The public-university system exists to make post-secondary education affordable and accessible. It is ‘public’ in the sense that universities receive a public subsidy to offset the cost of operating the university allowing tuition rates to remain artificially low. This approach is rooted in a commitment to equality and the belief that society is best served by an educated population. The public-university system is also ‘public’ in the sense that universities are overseen by a publicly appointed board of governors which are supposed to ensure accountability.

Over the past twenty-years public funding for post-secondary education has precipitously declined in Canada from 80% to a national average of approximately 53%. The reasons for this decline vary by province but an underlying storyline is a neoliberal tale characterized by antipathy towards taxation and unhealthy obsession with austerity. Not surprisingly, tuition fees have crept up to cover the hole in university budgets. But tuition caps in many provinces, including Alberta, have limited the ability of universities to cover the reductions in public funding sending many institutions that lack the endowments or other revenue sources into a financial tailspin.

Looking more closely at funding levels among research universities in Alberta offers more clarity with regard to the situation faced by Athabasca University. Using enrollment numbers from 2014 and provincial operating grant forecasts for 2014-2015 a disparity in provincial support is evident when it comes to funding for full-time students:

University of Alberta: $19,355/student

University of Calgary: $19,154/student

University of Lethbridge: $13,928/student

Athabasca University: $4,640/student

The nature of the public university system and the historic underfunding of this system by the province of Alberta is important context for understanding the dilemmas and challenges that Athabasca University currently faces not least of which is how to stay true to our social mission of lowering the barriers that otherwise inhibit university education and lifelong learning in the midst of a funding regime that exerts upward pressure on tuition rates and top-down pressure to contain costs through lay-offs and hiring freezes. Athabasca is left between a rock and hard place: offloading costs to students (that is in itself a barrier), or gutting the university of the value embodied in its highly qualified and dedicated staff.

What is at stake here is more than Athabasca University. At risk are the values upon which our public university system rests. Failure to address these systemic problems will shift our post-secondary system evermore closer to a private, user-fee based system, a system at odds with the values Canadians share.

Riding the Orange Wave to a Moral Economy?

Yesterday was an historic day in the province of Alberta. After 44 years in power, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party was unseated by the New Democratic Party (NDP). Most people I know feel like they have just witnessed the impossible. Some have downplayed the NDP’s historic win as more a reflection of dissatisfaction with the PCs than affiliation with the NDP. In light of all of this, I couldn’t help but think about Karl Polanyi’s (1957) classic thesis regarding the ‘double-movement’ of capitalism.  Polanyi argued that, try as they might, free market advocates can never completely disembed markets from society. Markets are always embedded in society in one way or another. For example, markets depend upon families and schools for the social reproduction of labor power. They also depend upon welfare programs that support surplus labor during economic downturns. This emdeddedness is the site of a constant struggle between the movement towards the liberalization of markets from outside interference and a counter-movement seeking to regulate and constrain market forces to respect and protect human life and communities. What we see reflected in our politics is a constant tension between classical economists’ dream of a pure self-regulating market and the social desire for a moral and humane economy. In ways I think we witnessed the counter-movement to Alberta’s decades-long experiment in resource-dependent liberal economics. The social fabric was fraying. I think people could feel this. The NDP represented a social democratic alternative to the social conservatism of the PC party and the Wildrose Party. The question remains, will Alberta ride the orange wave to a moral economy?

Reconnaissance

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I’m in it. The blogosphere. But I arrived unprepared. I have retreated. But I will return.