Much ado about charity

Is the CEO sleepout all it’s cracked up to be?

On Thursday, Sept. 29, 35 CEOs “slept out” to raise awareness of homelessness and help raise money for Change for the Better.

However, the event has not passed without criticism.

At first blush there seems nothing wrong with the notion of raising money for people who are disadvantaged. If you’re a critical thinker, you can’t help but wonder, “What year is this? Don’t people know homelessness is a major social problem?”

There are a lot of angry young people out there. Protest events in Europe, New York, and Toronto are but a few examples of this growing unrest. This anger stems from growing inequality; the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer and most people are enslaved by debt. 

Let me take a moment to discuss two major concerns.

I have to immediately point out the event’s hypocrisy. Some of the richest and most powerful people in Winnipeg are raising awareness and money for homelessness. What’s wrong with this picture? It negates the fact that wealth in Canada, at its very basis, is unfairly distributed.

There is a long and rich academic history arguing capitalism causes homelessness. Therefore it’s a contradiction and offensive to have perpetrators play victim of their own system’s effects. 

A further hypocrisy is that the event’s sponsor, the Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ), has anything but a clean record when it comes to dealing with the homeless on a daily basis.

Main Street Project’s Winnipeg Street Health Report found that 4.3 per cent of those who experience assault on the street do so at the hands of the BIZ patrol. 

In addition to hypocrisy, we need to ask why charity is so ingrained in our culture, and if charitable solutions are sustainable.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that “charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the true face of economic exploitation.”

Sure, I get the warm fuzzies when I help someone, but we need to ask more questions about how charities maintain social inequality and are at best Band-Aids for a gaping wound.

If we really wanted to end homelessness, we likely could.

We could distribute wealth fairly so that no one has to sleep on the street in -40 degree weather. In fact, the CEO of Royal Bank, a participant in the sleepover, should be aware that just over one per cent of RBC’s 2010 $5.2 billion net income could house all the people sleeping in shelters and public spaces in Winnipeg.

While Change for the Better is genuinely concerned with helping the homeless, the money raised in the event will provide jobs for homeless people to pick up garbage in the exchange district at a rate of $10 an hour. This charity event will generate 10,000 employable hours.

What if instead every CEO present opened five entry level positions in their companies to be filled by the unemployed homeless? That’s 7,000 hours a week.

Another solution is reigning in the attack on affordable housing.

Let’s not evict tenants in favour of downtown redevelopment and renewal projects. Let’s make surplus properties into homes people can afford and limit grants to developers who build luxury condos or office space.

We can do better.

Let’s reject the charity model in favour of sustainable policy change.

We live in a downward spiralling world where governments give money to bail out corporations in attempts to maintain our dwindling standard of living. I would love to think that this could be changed by rich people playing poor for a night, but it seems unlikely.

I hope we think harder about solutions that are sustainable, beneficial and productive.

This includes a real respect for those who are marginalized by our system. We owe them that.

Kelly Gorkoff is an instructor in the University of Winnipeg’s Department of Criminal Justice.

Published in Volume 66, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 12, 2011)

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