Homelessness threatens innocent people’s lives and livelihoods, so why is it not an important electoral issue for the media and the major political parties?
Over the past few years, I have gotten more interested in topics of government policy and public affairs. One particular topic that I have become drawn towards is homelessness and homeless policy. I personally became drawn to these topics because homelessness is an issue where people are unjustly impacted by the ills of society and where there is a real possibility of creating positive change through policy. As someone who is somewhat social justice-minded, those aspects of the issue fascinated me.
As my interest in homelessness grew deeper, I discovered and explored a fascinating body of research, commentary and other works from academics, shelter staff, journalists, advocates and homeless people themselves, all providing insights into the multidimensional issue.
Through this exploration, though, a question remained in my mind: why is it that, despite there being so much to talk about in the realm of homelessness and public policy, the topic of homelessness is rarely addressed as a major issue in federal and provincial election campaigns?
An Ipsos study conducted shortly before the 2019 federal election found that “poverty and social inequality” was in the top three vote-deciding issues for only 13 per cent of Canadian voters. An Abacus Data study found that “reducing income inequality” was top three in the vote-deciding issues for only 16 per cent of Canadian voters. Homelessness was not mentioned once in the English language 2019 Federal Leaders’ Debate. (Although, poverty was mentioned a handful of times.) Also, few articles on popular news websites address the place of homelessness, or lack thereof, in mainstream politics, further demonstrating its lack of presence in the public’s minds.
I believe I know the answer to the above question and this article is my attempt to explain it. Essentially, homelessness is rarely a major topic during federal and provincial elections because elections are decided by people voting in a self-interested manner.
To understand this, readers must first understand the basic dynamics of elections in democracies. Political parties and candidates seek to win and attempt to do so by generating a broad coalition of voters from the general public. To gain such broad support, their campaigns need to promote messages and focus on issues that resonate widely.
The specifics of these dynamics are complex and vary from election to election. It is not always a single issue that decides the whole outcome and these critical issues may not always be directly impactful to people’s lives (and also may not necessarily be related to economics,) but the general principle of the critical issues being the ones that resonate broadly holds up.
This is demonstrated by a number of elections from recent memory.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the 2015 Canadian election partly because voters were unhappy with the centralization of power and overly-controlling approach to governance taken by the Harper government. He also had a widely likable and appealing image.
Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won the last Ontario general election because voters were tired of government overspending and saw Ford with all of his proposed tax cuts as somebody who “understands their pocketbook struggles.”
Trudeau’s Liberals held onto power again in 2019 because he oversaw a strong economy in his first term and had a positive record as a result. A Politico article summed it up by saying that “He legalized marijuana and euthanasia, introduced a carbon tax and cut middle-class taxes while employment soared to historic highs.” At the same time, Trudeau’s rejection by voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan was because of those voters’ focus on jobs in the oil and gas sector, which was perceived to be in conflict with the Liberals’ climate plan.
The United States’ elections also demonstrate the principle of widely-resonant issues deciding the outcome, although the dynamics of American elections are somewhat different from ours. Donald Trump won in 2016 largely because he played himself as somebody who is willing to fight more for the working class than elites, and because his campaign resonated with people’s fears about the economy, public safety and cultural change. Joe Biden, in turn, won in 2020 because of the U.S. government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may very well be the most widely resonant topic imaginable.
In trying to generate broad appeal, successful parties often try to gain support from those in the middle-class. The fact that the Liberals named their successful 2019 platform Forward: A Real Plan for the Middle-Class and the fact that they later created the position of Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity are symbolic actions that show that they are trying to work strategically with a specific focus on voters who they perceive to be the general public, recognizing that they rely on the general public to push them over the top. The problem with this focus is that it often leaves the most impoverished out of the discussion.
People are primarily focused on themselves, meaning they typically will not vote in the favour of others, including the homeless. This reflects poorly on humanity in general but it is also understandable in a way. I have been lucky enough to be in a financially stable position over the past few years, so I have been able to vote for local candidates based on which ones I believe would best benefit the community, not needing to think about myself so much. Many voters do not have this luxury and will understandably vote primarily to improve their own lives. Everybody needs to financially survive, so not considering the homeless when voting is understandable to an extent, but it still, unfortunately, demonstrates that we do not care about others in our community as much as we would like to believe.
Could the Lack of Attention Given to Homelessness Ever be a Good Thing?
Even though homelessness’ absence from popular politics partly points to the public’s self-interested nature, there is a case to be made that there is a positive aspect to this lack of attention.
Many people get their news from political commentators. This is especially important to understand with YouTube in the picture, where personality-centered channels thrive. A Pew Research study found that Americans who get their news from YouTube are looking for opinions and commentary just as often as they are looking for facts. Political commentary is a key feature of Canadian news media, including traditional media, with many publications having popular opinion sections and some television channels having opinion and discussion shows. Many commentators present their statements with biased and partisan spin, and present problems and policy responses to those problems in oversimplified manners. These reports often leave audiences uninformed and sometimes misinformed. This is true of commentators from across the political spectrum. Political commentators often do not present issues with the thoughtfulness, thoroughness, care or nuance that is needed to give people a comprehensive view of the issues they discuss.
Homelessness is complicated and multifaceted both in its causes and its possible solutions. If political commentators talked about homelessness more often in the way they typically present issues, their audiences could gain a very skewed view of the issue and the general public discourse surrounding homelessness could change for the worse.
Take, for example, the issue of Housing First. For context, Housing First is a general approach to addressing homelessness that is defined by providing homeless people with apartments of their own without demanding that they become sober to qualify for housing, and offering voluntary treatments and therapies after they are given housing. This approach has real merits, having been empirically shown to keep people stably housed for longer periods of time than the traditional treatment-focused approach. It is also a less costly approach overall. Housing First also has some real problems such as, for example, how housing people quickly can be a challenge in tight rental markets and in rural areas. These complicated merits and demerits of Housing First need to be discussed thoughtfully and in good faith if conversations on the topic are to lead to improvements in homeless policy. I highly doubt that political commentators would be willing to have such detailed conversations.
Some political commentators, particularly those on the hard-right, dismiss people going through problems by saying that they are simply being lazy. Some hard-right commentators also claim governments attempt to make the public more dependent on it in a conspiratorial fashion. It is because of these commentators’ use of such rhetoric that I believe that If Housing First was a more well-known topic in trending political discussions, some commentators would jump on the opportunity to passionately portray the approach as one that incentivizes laziness, redirects hard-working people’s tax dollars to lazy people and makes people more dependent on government.
Homelessness is not a huge topic in popular politics, so prominent political figures, (commentators and politicians alike,) do not really have any incentive to present such rhetoric. It may surprise readers that the Harper government has made some of the most important contributions to addressing homelessness in Canadian history. They funded the At Home study, which proved the effectiveness of Housing First. They also subsequently embraced Housing First as a key aspect of their homelessness strategy, demanding that 65 per cent of the money homelessness organizations receive through the Homelessness Partnering Strategy be directed to Housing First-related programs. I doubt they would have done that if homelessness was a highly politicized issue.
Some of the pieces on homelessness from some popular political commentators and media outlets demonstrate that some of them are willing to present the issue in biased, partisan, oversimplified and sometimes even cruel ways. In some other pieces, commentators present homelessness sympathetically but do so to push a biased narrative, (often on immigration,) rather than addressing homelessness in its own right. This makes it arguable that people should be glad that the issue is not talked about more, lest people become more influenced by garbage rhetoric.
Why this is Important
Homelessness is always an important issue in the realm of public affairs. It threatens the lives and livelihoods of innocent people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it relevant to politics, even if it is not widely discussed.
Ottawa, like many other cities, has its own unique and serious homelessness problem. Ottawa has over 7,000 homeless citizens but less than 2,000 shelter beds. In 2020, Ottawa also became the first Canadian city to declare an affordable housing and homelessness emergency.
I believe that this is a decent time to write this article because the coming year and a half will likely see both a local Ottawa municipal election and an Ontario provincial election. There also currently remains the possibility of a federal election in 2021.
Past local candidates in both the federal election and last year’s provincial by-election have highlighted homelessness as a key issue that they wanted to focus on, but those candidates lost, despite Ottawa being in particular need of leadership on the homeless issue.
People voting in the coming elections have a real opportunity to make homelessness a prominent issue for politicians to address in local campaigns. Through activities like asking questions on the topic at rallies, town halls and whatever debates allow questions from the audience, people can raise the profile of the homeless issue to an extent where candidates cannot avoid the topic. Ensuring that this translates into action from the election-winners once they are in office likely requires further pressure after the elections.
The Fulcrum can play a sizable role in this effort as they have a history of covering local elections and gaining the attention of candidates, often through interviews.
Ultimately, the current political system does not easily allow for homelessness to be an issue that gains much attention or commitment from elected officials. This is largely disheartening and reflects poorly upon voters and politicians but it also has the upside of partly keeping bad rhetoric out of the discourse.
If people want to see change on the issue and get politicians to pay attention, they should first pay attention to the issue themselves in order to know what they are talking about. Homelessness is not nearly as sensational or exciting of an issue as what typically makes the news cycle, as change is typically gradual and reforms are technical, but it can be an incredibly fascinating topic for those who dig a little deeper.
For those who want to get informed, I recommend checking out Homeless Hub as a starting point. Homeless Hub is an archive of introductory information, academic articles, data, and opinion pieces on homelessness. I also recommend looking up the Housing First approach to understand one of the current dominant schools of thought on homeless policy and the extent to which it has helped.
Quinn Sam is a student entering his second year studying political science and economy at the University of Ottawa.