Homelessness At the Root of Hunger

I have moved around a lot. From time to time I have been homeless – “ but only in the sense that I was in transition, had not yet rented an apartment and was bouncing from friend to friend, sleeping on a couch here, a floor there. Still it was always a bit unsettling not to have a home. I cannot really imagine what it would be like to not have a secure place to live. It would be worse if I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from either.

In the UN’s Millenium Development Goals Report 2005, they state that “most of the world’s hungry live in rural areas and depend on the consumption and sale of natural products for both their income and their food”. Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia are considered the poorest regions. They go on to say that, “hunger tends to be concentrated among the landless or among farmers whose plots are too small to provide for their needs”. The diet of the rural poor is dictated by where they live, what they can grow there, how much land they might have to grow it on, and how accommodating the climate has been. Diet may also fluctuate with the seasons.

While food production and availability play a role, hunger in the city is usually related more to low incomes, and the subsequent health problems associated with dire living conditions and poor access to basic services. Food may be in abundance in the surrounding markets, but the urban poor may not be able to afford them. Malnutrition goes up when prices go up or when incomes go down. And children are the most vulnerable; four out of 10 children in the urban slums of developing countries suffer from malnutrition. That’s 20 times higher than in the developed world.

The UN Report provides a proven solution: “malnutrition levels decrease when investments are made to improve services and infrastructure in low-income areas.” They cite both China and India as success stories. In China, when the government improved its food distribution networks and provided access to health facilities and clean drinking water, malnutrition declined significantly. In India, life expectancy rose when they improved their food distribution system through better railroads and roadways. In fact, nutritional status rises when adequate housing, safe water and adequate sanitation services are provided. That is without making more food available. So why the heck aren’t we doing that?

The City of Portland, Oregon has made this connection. They have initiated a program called Housing First. They are placing the chronically homeless in permanent housing units before giving them any other treatment. They have found that sheltering people first makes it much easier to connect them to other services and treatment programs. Victoria, our provincial capital is adapting that program in their city too.

Addressing homelessness, landlessness and insecure land tenure, whether rural or urban is central to eradicating poverty and hunger. And yet according to a global survey of 60 countries, nearly 7 million people in 60 countries were evicted between 2000 and 2002; an increase of more than two million from the previous two years. Vulnerable people are evicted from their homes on the downtown eastside here in Vancouver on a regular basis. Now we are all anxiously awaiting word on the 252 social housing units in the Olympic Village. Will the City sell them off as market housing to recoup their 2009 bailout? Probably.

Check out the Challenge Series for the original inclusive vision for the site and an inside look at the challenges, successes and compromises that were made along the way.

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