Sunday, August 24, 2008

Blind Man Evicted: Too Many Records, CDs, Books

On the face of it, this is a disgraceful story. But without all the facts, this is exactly the sort of story which could be painted either direction -- it could be either disgraceful, or the only possible choice, or even both.

But, there are a few considerations that were not brought into the original article, which we can think about. But first, the article:
Evicted from social housing, blind man facing life on street
CBC News

A blind man who has been staying with friends since he was evicted from a city-owned social housing complex says he could soon be living on the street.

[He] has been living with friends for the past five months after being asked to leave the two-bedroom apartment ...where he had lived for 14 years, but said he has nowhere left to stay after this weekend.

"I'm ... on the street, basically," he said Friday.

The eviction came after Ottawa fire officials determined in February that his belongings would be a safety hazard in case of a fire.

He agreed that his collection of books, CDs and tapes were packed in boxes stacked "chest high" in some places.

But he said he thought had had reached an agreement with the Ottawa Community Housing Corp., which owns the building, that he could stay if he got rid of some of his stuff.

"It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under my feet," he said. "The bottom line is I was working on it ... I was throwing out and giving away things every day."

He is currently storing his belongings in two storage lockers.

OCH director Jo-Anne Poirier declined to comment specifically on [his] case, but said "hoarding" is a common problem in social housing. She added that tenants are evicted only in cases where there is a safety risk.

According to the OCH web site, the City of Ottawa is the corporation's sole shareholder, but that it operates at arm’s length from the city and has an 11-member board of directors.
Without actually seeing the condition of the apartment, it's difficult to comment on this. It's quite true that hoarding can go to extremes that are almost incomprehensible. I have seen such cases myself. And sometimes, the hoarding is actually a psychiatric condition in itself, or else a side effect of other problems like depression or medical problems that limit energy or mobility.

But a couple of things come to mind in this particular case -- I'm not sure if a collection of record albums and CDs and books qualifies as hoarding. Where you cross the line between hoarding, which usually implies items of no intrinsic value, and storage of a valuable collection? (Since the fire department was involved, I give more credence to it being a real concern, not just a social worker's over-critical judgment.)

Secondly, the gentleman in the story is disabled and has lived in the same apartment under social housing regulations for 14 years. I think we can safely assume that his apartment is small, and he is very unlikely to ever have a larger living space. Is it really the place of the government to decide how much of his very limited living space he devotes to storage? Particularly storage of items which have a small but real resale value?

Most people probably don't think of their books and CDs as liquid assets, but at the lower economic boundary of survival sometimes it's only a trip with a box of books to the local used bookstore that makes a difference between milk and bread, or a weekend of going hungry.

And if the gentleman is on welfare, these are exactly the sorts of liquid assets which never appear on the radar to be possibly noted and deducted from his payments.

Without knowing the facts it's easy to add a few suppositions in order to imagine a scenario which either supports or condemns this fellow. If you want to see that in action, go look at the comments appended to the CBC article. I must confess I was a bit startled by how nasty some of them were.

But one thing we know for sure, this move won't make the man's care any cheaper.

Housing, however humble, is the one possession that makes all other possessions possible, and the possession which improves physical and social health far beyond the dollar value of the rent. Having a fixed address, having a space to keep mementos, personal documents, and other valuable items -- oh hell, having a place where you can lie down to sleep at night knowing with fair certainty that you won't be kicked to death before morning -- even the most shabby efficiency apartment is a palace compared to life on the street.

If this fellow remains on the street, we can be fairly sure that no money will be saved. The cost previously paid by social housing for his apartment and utilities, which I'm guessing would be around $600 a month, will almost certainly be amplified and shifted to the health care system. Unless, of course, it skips the health care system altogether and goes directly to the prison system.

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