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issues. The intention is to directly unite those who are suffering with those who can help, enabling individuals who were previously isolated to devise creative, long-term solutions to their problems.
A NEW APPROACH TO SOCIAL PROBLEM SOLVING
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) is the most concentrated drug and poverty ghetto in North America. Over 10,000 drug addicts reside within a 15-block area. Many are chronically homeless. It is the site of immeasurable tragedy and suffering. A seemingly intractable conundrum, decades of attempts to address these issues have proven unsuccessful. In late 2008, inspired by the emergent Open-Source revolution, I set out to develop a radical new approach to the problem. It was to become known as “The Decentralized Community”.
1. THE PLAN
The only solution to Vancouver’s homeless/addiction epidemic will lie in an extensive understanding of the situation at hand. The only way to achieve this will be to get directly involved; engaging with and learning from those who live on the streets. This is only half of the equation, however, with extensive public education and community involvement the necessary complement. With the aid of an innovative new web-based approach, both goals can be realized simultaneously. The proposed Decentralized Community website will centre around a revised version of this document; a proposal encouraging all citizens of Vancouver to, when approached by a homeless person or observing one who seems approachable,!offer to buy them a meal and ask if they would like to share their story- to explain how they ended up on the streets. While dining together, they would ask the homeless person questions from a short, printable list (provided on the Decentralized Community website). Afterwards, this information would be entered back into the same site.
The homeless themselves would also be encouraged to visit this website and partake, answering the questions directly (programs like Homelessnation.org facilitate internet access for the homeless). However, to have the homed and homeless interact in such an intimate setting would be extremely beneﬁcial in cultivating fraternity, empathy, and understanding between those who rarely interact and in getting both sides actively engaged in the project. Once a suitable number of such conversations had taken place, everyone wishing to partake (homeless or not) would help to collaboratively organize and study this information on the website in order to determine: • Exactly why people end up homeless and/or addicted on the streets of Vancouver. • Exactly why they remain there or escape and recover. • Exactly what should be done to help these people get clean and/or off the streets permanently and prevent future occurrences. The project will be completely Open-Source, allowing all contributors to work together to make reﬁnements and upgrades; evolving and expanding both the online and ofﬂine components in whatever directions are deemed useful. Although the data already collected by local outreach organizations will be an invaluable resource to build upon, direct involvement from a diverse array of individuals (including former and current homeless) will likely solicit valuable new insights and generate innovative new approaches to the problem. It is believed that a great number of Vancouver’s inhabitants would like to help our homeless/addicted, but simply feel powerless and overwhelmed by the nature and magnitude of the problem. But with effective organization and even a small group of dedicated volunteers, this problem can be tackled!
2. ENDURING MISCONCEPTIONS
In order for this initiative to be successfully implemented, it is essential that we, the healthy and the homed, be divested of some serious misconceptions: 1. We need to stop expecting the homeless to "get a job" or get back on their feet alone; the majority suffer from debilitating mental illnesses (addiction included) and are incapable of helping themselves.
Though difﬁcult to comprehend and accordingly stigmatized, it must be understood that addiction is a disease. It is a complex, chronic brain condition compelling those it afﬂicts to self-medicate in attempts to evade feelings of severe anxiety and distress. To vilify or punish those suffering from addiction or any other disease is not only cruel, but counterproductive as well. The Decentralized Community website will provide detailed information on all aspects of addiction; its demystiﬁcation being absolutely vital to its resolution. 2. We must also stop expecting our governments to solve this problem. In the face of any social epidemic, governments are –by design– uncreative and rarely effective. The election process compels politicians to address these complex issues with hollow rhetoric and impracticable promises. Handouts and enforcement schemes then ensue; occasionally delivering short-term “results”, but ultimately serving only to perpetuate the problems. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a prime example. Billions of tax dollars and countless government initiatives later, it is still debatable whether progress has actually been made. And while their efforts must be applauded, even those outreach organizations who are directly involved have been unable to implement a feasible long-term solution to this problem or convince our governments to apply their recommendations on a scale necessary to have a serious, long-term impact on homelessness or drug addiction.
3. SYSTEMIC DISSOCIATION
As Dr. Gabor Maté, a prominent physician with over a decade of experience working in Vancouver’s DTES writes in his recent book In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: “It’s not the particulars of a social policy that matter most, but the relationship between those who inﬂuence policy and those affected by it.” The dissociation inherent within our current system bears direct responsibility for its dismal results. Isolated, unresponsive, and forceful rather than inspirational, our social policy apparatus is fundamentally ﬂawed, requiring a complete overhaul. In its place must emerge a revolutionary new framework that unites and inspires; an empowering new system that promotes understanding and compassion while delivering dynamic, effective and lasting results. Those wishing to help must be directly enabled to assist those in need.
4. THE WISDOM OF CROWDS
The Decentralized Community concept was inspired a great deal by the book The Wisdom Of Crowds. The following review outlines the basic premise: "While our culture generally trusts experts and distrusts the wisdom of the masses, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki argues that 'under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” If four basic conditions are met, a crowd's ‘collective intelligence’ will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts, Surowiecki says, even if members of the crowd don't know all the facts or choose, individually, to act irrationally. "Wise Crowds" require: (1) Diversity of opinion. (2) Independence of members from one another. (3) Decentralization. (4) A good method for aggregating opinions. “The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; Decentralization allows people to specialize and draw on local knowledge; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees the results are "smarter" than if a single expert were in charge."! The proposed Decentralized Community approach will satisfy all of the above requirements and offer several other distinct advantages as well: Whereas our governments are continually hamstrung by political correctness and obsessed with headlines and re-election (compelling them to implement short-term, stopgap initiatives), a Decentralized Community's sole agenda would be to develop practical and effective long-term solutions. It would be free to ask controversial questions and explore unconventional approaches, especially those which are politically sensitive. And as they would comprise a very visible component of society, Decentralized Communities would have real political clout, and with it, the ability to actually get their ideas funded and implemented.
5. LOCAL IMPLEMENTATION
The DTES would be an ideal small-scale proving ground for this concept. The homeless conundrum is highly visible and highly debated and plenty of people are passionate about the issue and dedicated to its resolution. The DTES is also a relatively contained area and this would simplify data collection and the implementation of whatever solutions the Decentralized Community may devise. And at street level, the Decentralized Community could deliver renewed hope and purpose to those homeless and addicts who desire to help not only themselves, but other members of their community as well. The potential impact that allowing these people to become directly involved in crafting and implementing the policy decisions that affect them (rather than having them dictated by various authorities who claim to know what’s best) should not be underestimated. Local newspapers, television stations, photographers, ﬁlmmakers and bloggers could also get involved; proﬁling a different homeless person’s story every day (with a photo and their answers to some or all of the interview questions) in order to attract more people to the project and promote greater awareness and understanding. The Decentralized Community could also arrange for addicts and the homeless to speak publicly; sharing their stories at local schools and other public venues in order to dispel the stigmas and myths surrounding homelessness and addiction. Though many logistical hurdles will need to be overcome, in the opinion of the author, Decentralized Communities do seem the most logical approach to homelessness and social problem solving in general.
6. GLOBAL IMPLEMENTATION
The Decentralized Community model could also be applied on a global scale, enabling anyone, anywhere to become directly involved in helping to resolve faraway poverty, disease, disaster, hunger, violence, or any other issue currently facing humanity. The antiquated approach to global issues: Decontextualized news reports keep us abreast of selected global tragedies, hardships, and catastrophes. Assistance options for the vast majority are then limited to either donating money to aid organizations or pressing our governments to “act”. If deemed politically advantageous, our governments may respond, sending over some troops or some money. But lasting solutions are rarely found and billions are
squandered every year band-aiding or even further exacerbating problems that nobody fully understands. There is a serious, ridiculous disconnect, and in the digital age there is a better way. The proposed progressive approach to global (and local) issues: We enable those on the ground who are directly affected to share their stories and insights via the internet within an Open-Source framework and work with them (both online and in person) to devise legitimate, lasting solutions. A few spare hours a week from enough people could have an unimaginable impact. And with a clever digital framework in place, these humanitarian efforts could become just as engaging and popular as traditional forms of entertainment.
7. MOVING FORWARD
In order to ﬁnd legitimate, lasting solutions to humanity’s problems, we must engage directly; creating a massive, co-ordinated collective of Decentralized Communities that will isolate the roots of our problems and act in concert to address them. The sooner we can get everyone online and enabled to participate in an empowering global community, the sooner we can get serious about resolving these problems once and for all. Some far-out idealism perhaps, but in the author’s eyes, nothing short of full-scale, revolutionary tactics will ever gain us any ground in the battles against addiction, poverty, violence and every other social ailment currently plaguing our societies. In line with these high-ﬂown ideals, for the past decade, the author has been developing a collaborative, Open-Source ﬁlm project entitled “Humanity”. It is a ﬁlm which examines the human race from an outsider’s anthropological perspective; ultimately proposing that: “Modern human societies are backwards, cruel and ignorant... But they don't have to be anymore because of the internet.” Accordingly, a large portion of the ﬁlm will be devoted to promoting the yet-unrealized potential of Decentralized, Open-Source social problem solving on a global scale. Years ago, anticipating the development of this ﬁlm and the dawning of a new Open and Decentralized societal order, the author registered “Wikimanity.com” (Wiki+Humanity) and will gladly donate both it and Decentralizedcommunity.org once the right people step forward to develop them :)
At the time of its launch, the Wikipedia seemed outlandish, even ridiculous. But its success proves beyond a doubt that millions of people can be compelled to volunteer together within an Open-Source framework in hopes of bettering the world. The author doesn’t see any reason why the Wikimanity / Decentralized Community concept couldn’t also tap into this incredible wellspring of goodwill and meet with similar success. Anyone wishing to provide feedback or help bring these projects to life, please visit DecentralizedCommunity.org Sincerely, Gary Lachance
Ultimately, it is essential to recognize that addiction is not merely a disease unto itself, but also, a symptom indicative of a far greater malady. Acting as barometers of societal health, addictions expose -with chilling precision and in grisly detail- the fundamental weaknesses and ﬂaws within our culture. Dr. Gabor Maté writes: “It is no coincidence that addictions arise mostly in cultures that subjugate communal goals, time-honored tradition and individual creativity to mass-production and the accumulation of wealth. Addiction is one of the outcomes of the "existential vacuum", the feeling of emptiness engendered when we place supreme value on selﬁsh attainments... To ﬁll the unendurable void, we become attached to things of the world that cannot possibly compensate us for the lack of who we are.” The inconvenient truth that must be acknowledged is that our very culture is one of rampant insecurity and addiction; breeding not only drug dependence and alcoholism but also compulsive eating, shopping, working, status-seeking, gambling and sex. As such, any proactive approach to the modern addiction epidemic will require some major societal soul searching- an acknowledgement of our shortcomings and a valiant, concerted effort to address them. Compassion and community, rather than consumption and selﬁsh isolation must become our new societal imperatives. Hopefully the Decentralized Community model will aid in realizing these lofty ambitions.
APPENDIX / CLARIFICATIONS
Below is a basic, preliminary list of questions that could be revised and expanded upon as the Decentralized Community website is developed (effective approach and delivery techniques will be developed and reﬁned on the website as well). Although approaching a homeless person may seem intimidating at ﬁrst, the author has approached quite a few now in order to assess this proposal. So far they’ve been extremely receptive and were happy to answer the questions; just glad to know that someone cared and wanted to help. And the hot meal makes a great icebreaker! How did you become homeless? How long have you been homeless? Would you like to get off the streets? Why or why not? Do you use drugs? Are you addicted? Why did you start using drugs? Would you like to get clean? Why or why not? Would you commit yourself to a rehabilitation centre in order to get clean? How else do you think you could get clean? Were you born in Vancouver or did you move here? Were you homeless in another city previously? Why did you move to Vancouver? Would you like to leave? Would you consider leaving the DTES or are all of your friends and support networks here?
What do you think of the programs currently offered to help homeless people and addicts in Vancouver recover and get off the streets? Have you tried any of them? Do you think they are effective? Why or why not? Are you on welfare or disability? How much money do you receive per month? Does that not cover rent and food? Would you be willing to share a living space with others? Do you have family you could stay with? If you could live anywhere, where would it be? If you could have the job of your choice, what would it be? If you had food and shelter covered, what would you do with your time? If you were given a place to live, would you be willing to work to pay rent? How often are you forced to actually sleep on the streets? What do you think is the solution to homelessness and addiction in Vancouver? Would you like to share some success stories of people you know who got clean or found homes? What do you think about the “politically incorrect” questions below? Some “politically incorrect” questions that will likely have to be addressed if this problem is to ever be resolved: Why are the vast majority of Vancouver’s homeless White or Aboriginal and not Asian or South Asian? What can be learned from this? Aboriginal Canadians receive more welfare dollars and subsidized “opportunities” than anyone else in this country and still comprise a staggering percentage of the
homeless. Why is this and what can be learned from this? (Another allied Decentralized Community should be devoted to solving the riddle of Canada’s aboriginal poverty issue as well). Since the “War On Drugs” has proven an inarguably dismal failure, is the legalization of these drugs not a viable alternative to the harm wrought by the drug trade (gang violence, lost tax revenue, enforcement costs) and the harm wrought by drug addicts who use expensive, tainted street drugs (AIDS, hepatitis, healthcare costs) and support their addictions via unscrupulous means (theft, violence, prostitution)? Since drug addiction is a disease and its effects are communicable (crime, violence, child neglect, child abuse, massive healthcare costs etc.), shouldn’t those who are severely afﬂicted and refuse treatment be quarantined until they are no longer a threat to themselves or others in the community? (Unless support for full-scale legalization is enacted, this approach may unfortunately warrant consideration) Expecting a drug addict to get clean while living in or around the Downtown Eastside seems about as realistic as expecting an alcoholic to get sober while living in a bar. Is the DTES not a self-perpetuating drug colony that is largely sustained by ill-conceived housing policies which should be seriously reconsidered ASAP? The last two measures are harsh, and human rights organizations would likely be up in arms over any such proposal, but the reality is that some human rights “violations" will probably have to be risked in order to successfully resolve this problem. If a Decentralized Community were to publicly research and endorse such resolutions and develop a way to have them implemented as humanely and judiciously as possible, it’s probably the best we can hope to do. And ﬁnally, one possible human rights-friendly approach that could be discussed/ explored by the Decentralized Community: Divide addicts who are committed to getting clean into support teams (if possible, including friends and family) and move them far away from the DTES to remote locations where they cannot obtain drugs and will remain until they have supported each other through recovery.
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