Jack Layton waits to discuss his book with interested readers.
Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

NDP leader talks homelessness

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Canada's most recognized socialist-moustache is known for trading rhetoric with other party leaders in Ottawa. However, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton has also written a book that delves into the intricacies of the growing issue of homelessness.

Layton was in Calgary not only to attend the Junos, but to sign copies of his book Homelessness: How to End the National Crisis Sun., Apr. 7. The book is the second edition of Layton's earlier volume Homelessness: the Making and Unmaking of a Crisis.

When asked, Layton told one fan that he never thought he'd write a book, due to a learning disability that prevents him from reading at speed. He went on to explain that because of his opportunity to talk with people across the country working to remedy homelessness--and those afflicted--as both the Federation of Canadian Municipalities president and a city councillor, he had the responsibility to not only pass on their stories, but to develop an action plan to address them.

"In parliament, you get 35 seconds to ask a question and it's hard to go in to depth," said Layton. "Media interviews tend to be very brief, the homelessness problem has many dimensions, but it has a common fundamental thread which is that our society has not made it a fundamental principal that everybody should have a roof over their head."

The NDP is pushing for a bill titled The Housing Bill of Rights. It's stated that the bill will "respect the dignity and worth of all women, children and men of Canada to protect their human rights, through the provision of affordable housing." Homeless people are often divided into two categories: "absolute," those living on the streets, versus "at risk," those one to two paycheques away from the streets.

"We should certainly be addressing all dimensions of homelessness," said Layton. "There are those that have already lost their homes that are in shelters, on the street, crashing with other people, couch surfing [or] living in cars--doubled-up, tripled-up, living in homes that were built for a much smaller number of people. All of these are examples of the problem."

In the book, Layton tells the stories of some harsh realities experienced by the homeless people he had met. After the first edition was released, National Post writer Jonathan Kay criticized Layton for not disclosing details of mental illnesses or substance abuse of the individuals.

Layton countered that Kay had not read the book, but stressed that regardless the stress and challenge of not being able to provide for your basic needs could lead anyone to develop some mental health problems. He then emphasized that irrespective of cause, an affordable roof over someone's head is not only part of the solution, but a necessity.

"Homelessness is the ragged edge of the moral social fabric," he said. "Once you start seeing the rug start to disintegrate at the edges, you know there's a deeper problem emerging in the society as a whole and that we need to tackle that issue."

Layton described homelessness as an issue of social justice, noting that a moral society is one in which every member is valued and that their essential right, such as housing, are ensured. He praised the efforts of Calgarians, pointing to the adoption of some very innovative solutions, but stressed that the affordable housing crisis here is still severe.

"We haven't structured our society to make sure that the economic benefits of boom times are distributed fairly," he said. "We've just assumed that the market would take care of that, but it ends up leaving people behind because scarcities are created. There's a scarcity of housing and more money chasing a scarce resource is going to drive up the price."

When the federal Liberals were in power, the NDP blocked proposed corporate tax cuts, asking instead for funds to be put into things like affordable housing and post-secondary education. The Liberals agreed, allocating $4.6 billion. Layton lamented that that money will run out next year as nothing new has been added, stressing that the Conservative government must put funding into affordable housing rather than cut taxes for "big banks and oil companies."