Youth in care deserve better as they become adults

As the May 9th provincial election approaches, one of the policy issues I hope will get some attention is the question of extending financial support to young people in the foster-care system, after they turn 19. As it stands, the financial and other types of support available to children in government care (including regular social worker support and monthly maintenance payments to foster parents) end, quite abruptly in most cases, at age 19 –  a transition that is known as “aging out.”

Nineteen is a pretty young age to have to navigate today’s complex world completely on your own, but even more so for young people in care, since being there means they’ve already experienced major loss, neglect, trauma or abuse – and the foster system can be traumatizing in itself. Also, social mobility, and even survival, in today’s credential-oriented world depends on having marketable skills, which usually requires some type of formal post-secondary education, whether vocational or academic. That’s expensive and may not be easily accessible to youth in care, who have much lower high-school graduate rates than other students. The need for post-secondary education in order to access the job market, along with the Lower Mainland’s astronomically high housing costs, are why we’re now seeing about 60% of young people in BC between the ages of 20 and 24 living at home with their families.

But what if you don’t have that option? With no financial support and weak (or non-existent) family ties, youth coming out the foster care system are obviously at a major disadvantage. No surprise, then, that they disproportionately end up homeless or dependent on income assistance, at least temporarily.

I recently (well, November) attended a workshop on this topic at Housing Central, the annual conference of the BC Nonprofit Housing Association (BCNPHA). The conference is aimed at the nonprofit housing providers that comprise the BCNPHA’s membership, but it also offers a wide range of workshops on various aspects of affordable housing and homelessness more generally. One of these was put on by Aunt Leah’s Place, an nonprofit group that provides support to youth in care as and after they age out of the system. A staffer from Aunt Leah’s led participants through an eye-opening exercise in which we were asked to remember all the types of help we received from our families between the ages of 19 and 24 and estimate the cost of that support if we had had to pay for it ourselves. Free or cheap housing is an obvious type of support that many people receive from their families after 19, but the list is much longer. The basics include groceries, utilities, transportation, medical and dental insurance, phone bills and clothing. Better-off families may spend much more to support their children as they transition into adulthood, including by subsidizing or completely paying for tuition, cars, travel and down-payments on homes. I was glad the facilitator did not ask us to share the dollar figures we came up with in public, because I thought this calculation process could trigger a lot of emotions – of everything from overwhelming gratitude to deep hurt as people reflected on the ways they were or weren’t supported by their families as they became adults. While we weren’t expected to share our figures publicly, those who wanted to were invited to anonymously write the dollar amount they came up with on a piece of paper, which the facilitator collected and wrote on a whiteboard. The figures from our group of about 25 participants (of widely varying ages) ranged from the negatives – those who actually helped support their families financially between the ages of 19 and 24 – to sums over $60,000. Quite the disparity.

Of course, financial help is just one type of support that intact, functional families provide their children with, and perhaps not even the most important. Youth in care also lack social support from their families of origin – and so may be lacking in life skills and just places to turn when things go wrong. Life is often not smooth when you’re a young person just figuring out how the world works. Recovering from the trials and tribulations of adult life (whether that’s locking yourself out of your apartment, losing a job, getting in a car accident, suffering a breakup, or worse) is harder the first time around and also harder if you have no one to reassure you that these things happen to everyone or to offer advice on how to get through the tough patches. Even when things are going well, functioning families provide a framework of support, as well as expectations, that help young adults not only find their way in the world, but also make the most of their potential. Former youth-in-care do not benefit from this type of built-in intangible but crucial social support.

This is why extending financial and other supports to youth in care beyond their nineteenth birthday makes so much sense, on both compassionate and fiscal grounds. Various advocacy groups and social agencies, including the Vancouver Foundation, have taken up this call. To its credit, the provincial government did recently make some changes in that direction. In late 2016, it expanded an existing program (Agreements with Young Adults) that provides financial support to about 650 youth in care, if they meet certain criteria. The expansion was expected to help another 500 youth. However, considering that we have somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 children in care in B.C. and about 700 of them age out of the system every year, that program and its expansion by no means meets the extent of the need. More policy changes are needed – thus I’ll be watching for news on this issue as the election approaches.

If you’re interested in this issue or others related to social and affordable housing, you might want to check out the BCNPHA’s conference in 2017. At the 2016 edition, I also attended interesting workshops on creating opportunities for new nonprofit housing in Metro Vancouver, land trusts, and the controversial practice of including separate doorways (sometimes referred to as “poor doors”) in mixed market and social housing developments. There was also a great keynote presentation by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Recent news items and resources on “aging out”

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Highlights from housing (and other academic) journals

I recently set up table-of-contents alerts on a bunch of housing, urban studies, and tourism journals and am finding it a great way to keep abreast, however superficially, of current academic literature in these areas. I’m mainly doing this in order to be alerted to new articles on short-term rentals (see my other blog for more info on that), but this tactic has the side benefit (or curse?) of bringing a lot of other interesting stuff to my attention. How to deal with that? I sometimes feel I’m a bit compulsive about sharing information I think might be relevant to people I know. I know info overload and the flittish (word?), distracted frame of mind it tends to create is a real problem for me and many others, so perhaps I’ll use this blog as an outlet for my sharing impulse instead of spamming inboxes…

Please note: When I post a title and/or abstract here it doesn’t mean I’ve read the whole article or endorse the views expressed. It means I think it looks interesting, I might want to read it, and/or that it seems somehow timely or relevant to current urban or other social policy debates. Some of these articles may have been published in journals as long as a few years ago and just more recently made available online: Hope some find this useful…

One more thing: Regarding access to the full text of these articles…I have access to a smorgasbord of stuff right now (thanks SFU library!) by dint of the fact that I’m paying tuition to SFU. If you don’t have that same access, try searching for the full text through your own public library, such as the VPL. There’s a good chance that will work for you. If not, you might want to check out the external access programs offered by your local post-secondary institution – I think most have some version of that by now. Info on SFU’s program is here. There’s also Google Scholar…or google the article author/s – sometimes they post their own published articles or similar versions.

This first article is definitely relevant to current Vancouver debates on community planning and public engagement, and specifically to the question of whether we should have a citywide plan instead of (or in addition to?) a series of neighbourhood plans. Some point to the mid-1990s CityPlan process as a model to be revived, but I’ve heard other knowledgeable people suggest that process has been somewhat overhyped or romanticized…

Governing cities through participation—a Foucauldian analysis of CityPlan Vancouver

by Marit Rosolin in Urban Geography
Abstract: In 1995 Vancouver City Council approved new policy guidelines for future urban development that departed from the traditional model of suburban growth, instead prioritizing urban intensification. Theoretically guided by the Foucauldian governmentality approach, I argue in this paper that this shift towards intensification can be understood through an analysis of Vancouver’s extensive participatory planning process known as CityPlan. Created as an answer to conflicts around the intensification of historically evolved urban neighbourhoods, CityPlan Vancouver exemplifies a specific form of urban governance that has been understudied in geography and participation research: a governance consisting of conducting the conduct of citizens through participatory processes. The paper examines this “governing through participation” by carrying out a microanalysis of the problematizations, rationalities, and technologies of CityPlan. Such an analysis differs significantly from an evaluation of participatory planning processes against normative ideals, and thus enriches critical research on participation in urban governance.

Onto the next…gentrification, ever a hot topic in these parts (and rightly so):

“They want to live in the Tremé, but they want it for their ways of living”: gentrification and neighborhood practice in Tremé, New Orleans

by Trushna Parekh in Urban Geography
Abstract: In this study, I deploy an ethnographic approach to analyze the detrimental effects of gentrification on longstanding residents in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood. I focus on conflicts between long-established residents and gentrifiers over the use of neighborhood space on a day-to-day basis as a means for examining the consequent changes in neighborhood life. As their neighborhood gentrifies, long-term residents of Tremé must contend with greater policing, the erosion of place-based knowledge, practices, and cultural traditions, the loss of social networks, and the closure of vital neighborhood institutions. These changes in neighborhood life provide a starting point from which to begin to understand the broader effects (beyond displacement) that longstanding residents experience as a result of gentrification.

This one looks very interesting – think I will have to read it.

The rules of residential segregation: US housing taxonomies and their precedents

By Sonia Hirt in Planning Perspectives
This paper reviews how urban regulations in history have been used to relegate populations to different parts of the city and its environs. Its main purpose is to place the twentieth-century US zoning experience in historic and international contexts. To this end, based mostly on secondary sources, the paper first surveys a selection of major civilizations in history and the regulations they invented in order to keep populations apart. Then, based on primary sources, it discusses the emergence of three methods of residential segregation through zoning which took root in the early twentieth-century USA. The three methods are: segregating people by race, segregating them by different land-area standards, and segregating them based on both land-area standards and a taxonomy of single- versus multi-family housing.

Not recent published, but recently found…Another for the reading list….soon.

Are There Limits to Gentrification? The Contexts of Impeded Gentrification in Vancouver

by David Ley in Urban Studies
This paper examines conditions that impede inner-city gentrification. Several factors emerge from review of a scattered literature, including the role of public policy, neighbourhood political mobilisation and various combinations of population and land use characteristics that are normally unattractive to gentrifiers. In a first phase of analysis, some of these expectations are tested with census tract attributes against the map of gentrification in the City of Vancouver from 1971 to 2001. More detailed qualitative field work in the Downtown Eastside and Grandview-Woodland, two inner-city neighbourhoods with unexpectedly low indicators of gentrification, provides a fuller interpretation and reveals the intersection of local poverty cultures, industrial land use, neighbourhood political mobilisation and public policy, especially the policy of social housing provision, in blocking or stalling gentrification.

And related…

Urban rapid rail transit and gentrification in Canadian urban centres: A survival analysis approach

by Annelise Grube-Cavers and Zachary Patterson in Urban Studies
Despite the existing knowledge that urban rapid rail transit has many effects on surrounding areas, and despite some attempts to understand the links between transit and gentrification, there remain methodological gaps in the research. This study addresses the relationship between the implementation of urban rapid rail transit and gentrification, which is conceived of as an event. As such, an event analysis approach using ‘survival analysis’ is adopted as the statistical analytical tool. It tests whether proximity to rail transit is related to the onset of gentrification in census tracts in Canada’s largest cities. It is found that proximity to rail transit, and to other gentrifying census tracts, have a statistically significant effect on gentrification in two of the three cities analysed. By providing a methodological framework for the empirical analysis of the impact of urban rail transit on gentrification, this paper is a reference for both researchers and transportation planners.

She’s got Mike Davis eyes

Apologies if that title brings back bad memories of ’80s synth-pop (as it does for me).

Last week in my “Great Urban Thinkers” class, we discussed the well-known urban author and critic Mike Davis. In the “Fortress L.A.” chapter of his book City of Quartz, Davis writes

The neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers. In many instances the semiotics of so-called “defensible space” are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces….are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass “Other.” Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately.

Although Davis was writing about the L.A. of the late ’80s, there are certainly examples of upscale pseudo-public spaces in contemporary Vancouver (e.g. Pacific Centre) as well as abundant signs and signals meant to thwart the presence of poor people in our downtown core areas (not to mention selectively enforced bylaws).

Knowing that, I decided to pursue a Davis-related short assignment: to walk around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with Davis’s words in mind and notice both the overt and the subtle signs of inclusion and exclusion, as well as any barriers, obstacles and warnings related to security and policing.

I had no specific plan when I got off the bus on Hastings, just west of Carrall; I just wanted to wander and see where my eyes and interest took me. It took all of two minutes for a theme to develop. This is hardly an original observation, but wow – so many metal gates. Everywhere. At first I thought I might count them, but it quickly became apparent that it would be easier to count the ungated doorways. These are just a few of the gates I noticed within a few blocks of each other.

 

Actually paying attention to all these metal gates made me think about the messages they send to neighbourhood residents. Yes, some are more aesthetically pleasing, arguably less intimidating than others, but ultimately, don’t they all convey the same messages?

Keep out.

This is not for you.

Go away.

We don’t want you here.

How would it feel to spend all one’s days in this kind of environment? I think it would put me in a bad mood – or at the very least contribute to a chronic underlying crankiness and tension. These are feelings I can easily imagine turning to hostility and aggression. Supposedly the gates are sending the same messages to all who pass them, regardless of income, social status or relationship to property, but that’s not really how it works. If the keys to one or more of those gates jangle in your pockets as you walk around, if you’ve been behind those gates or know you could go there if you really wanted to (without breaking the law), the gates you can’t pass through are going to bother you a lot less.

The ubiquity of the gates also made me wonder about the minority of ungated properties. I’d be interested to know why those ones don’t have gates. Is it that they can’t afford to install them, or is it a deliberate decision not to contribute to the siege atmosphere that the gates produce? Perhaps some of the gated businesses inherited their gates when they moved into their spaces and they’d just as soon not have them, though removing them is not a priority. Or perhaps an inventory would show that the ungated properties are the ones that house businesses at low risk for break-in, or that don’t have much to steal. I didn’t keep a tally, but I noticed that the Potluck Café (run by the Portland Hotel Society) and Bean Around the World Café were not gated (unless they have internal gates not visible from the outside). Are the gates concentrated in particular sections of the neighbourhood? I think these are interesting questions and I wonder if anyone has researched them. Seems like a good topic.

All this is not meant to criticize or single out individual businesses for gating their premises. I don’t live or work in the DTES (though in the past I’ve volunteered at two neighbourhood nonprofits). Nor am I familiar with its latest crime stats. I’m sure if I had a business anywhere and I’d been broken into even once, I would at least think about taking steps to prevent it from happening again. No one wants to feel afraid and no one wants to lose money. I should also make clear that I don’t think having a gated property in the DTES and being a socially responsible business owner are mutually exclusive. There may be many examples of gated businesses with owners who hire locally, proactively work with local service agencies and who know and welcome low-income residents to their premises. Kudos to all of them. The points I’m trying to make are about the pervasive presence of metal gates, how that presence and materiality must shape both the psychology and everyday experience of low-income residents, and also how different that is from my experience of my own neighbourhood.

And of course, actual metal gates are not the only ways that messages of belonging, exclusion and defensiveness are communicated. As I walked around, I also thought about fonts. I’m no type designer or historian, but I do have a thing for fonts (particularly of the arts and crafts style). It comes with the word nerd territory. How do the fonts that signs are written in tell people whether they belong somewhere or not? I don’t know exactly, except that we’re all immersed and in the process of interpreting our visual and written culture each day, all day – even those of us who are illiterate or struggle with literacy (perhaps they even more so, since they can’t extract information from the textual content of signs.) Again, I didn’t keep a tally, but I can tell you that as I walked around, I saw very few fonts like this or this:

IMG_3017

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3018

 

 

 

 

And a lot more like this.

IMG_3029

 

 

 

I’d argue that if even if things were switched around so that the sign using the hip, postmodern font said “all-day breakfast,” low-income people would still be receiving a “stay away” message.

Seeing all the upscale restaurants and stores selling expensive clothing, furniture, jewellry and shoes, I also thought about times I’ve visited ritzy shopping districts in major cities such as New York. Sure, it can be fun to check these areas out and indulge a few fantasies, even though I can’t afford to purchase the items for sale. But would I want to live in an area like that, surrounded by things I can’t afford and by people so much wealthier than I? No way. Actually, I always keep my forays to such areas short because walking around feeling envious is no fun – it puts me in a bad mood. It’s true that some of that bad mood comes from exposure to what I consider to be obscene overconsumption and inequality, but I crave beautiful objects at least as much as the next person. And if I’m prone to fall into an envy-induced funk when I visit places like that for just a couple hours, what must it be like to have to deal with that all the time in your own neighbourhood? Especially when you can’t afford to live anywhere else. Especially when you have had little to no say in the rapid changes taking place around you. Obviously, these are points that DTES residents have been making themselves, loudly and for a long time. They are part of why the recent DTES community planning process (and its results) have been contentious.

Overall, walking through the DTES while trying to see through “Mike Davis eyes” yielded plenty of signals of exclusion and defensiveness – ones I’m certain are instantly decoded by those whom they’re meant for. But they are sign-makers too.

 

street painting

On the pavement of the alley between Hastings and Cordova at Cambie.

 

Sharon Zukin, revised

Now and then I will be posting work, like this, that I’ve done as part of my master’s of urban studies program. I wrote this Wikipedia entry on urban theorist Sharon Zukin as a short assignment in my “Great Urban Thinkers” course. The main reason I was interested in Zukin is that she was presented in class as somewhat of a counterpoint to Jane Jacobs, whom I’ve long admired. I wasn’t really aware of the various criticisms of Jacobs before taking this on, so it was a fruitful assignment and I now have a more nuanced view.

The entry did exist before I started mucking with it, but it was very short – 300 or 400 words max, only one footnote. I plan to tweak it a bit more still, when I have time.

Wikipedia: Sharon Zukin

Update: I emailed Sharon Zukin to let her know I’d revised and expanded her entry, and she very kindly wrote me back promptly to say thank you.

New publication! My short-term rentals story in The Tyee

I am pleased to announce my first actual byline in, oh…longer than I want to say. My story on how short-term rentals, as facilitated Airbnb and similar web tools, affect the supply of long-term rental housing in Vancouver appeared in The Tyee on June 27. Read all about it here: Are Online Vacation Renters Displacing Vancouverites?

I’m also pleased to see follow-up coverage by CBC Radio and TV. BC Almanac did a segment July 5, which covered much of the same ground as my story, though focused more on the lack of lodging taxes paid in these transactions.

Then on July 6, CBC TV did a 2-minute news segment. It’s great to see this, though I note that they interviewed a Yaletown resident who rents out the second bedroom in his condo. From a safety and security point of view, that sort of short-term rental is not really the issue, since the host will often be present when the guest is there and that does a lot to mitigate concerns and risks.

More to my point, I would argue that renting out a spare room (or an entire apartment or home while the usual resident is away) has a fairly minimal effect on the supply of rental housing that’s available to actual Vancouver residents. It’s true that that second bedroom could be housing a local resident instead of a tourist and we certainly need all the affordable housing we can get in Vancouver. But I think policy-makers should be much more concerned about the many entire apartments, condos and secondary suites and houses that are being rented to tourists (at higher rates and without the oversight of the Residential Tenancy Act) instead of adding to the city’s woefully inadequate and aging rental housing stock.

I also don’t know, but would like to, where CBC TV got the figure of 3,000 rooms available for short-term rental to tourists.

Elsewhere, Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs elaborated on the comments of his I included in my story on his own blog. And a Gabriola blogger chipped in here.