Dwelling on the Past
You are probably already aware that “pivoting” does not only refer to a legal move you can make on the court (or in the court if you are Doug, Katrina or Scott). It might also include compiling a list of Single Room Occupancy hotels in the Vancouver area (as a previous intern did) or visiting the hotels on that list to promote Hope in Shadows events as I did two weeks ago. A lot has been written about the health and legal issues that residents of SRO’s might face. Rather than reiterating these observations, I think it useful to say a couple of words about the socio-historical matter that underpins our perceptions of SRO’s.
Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of the nineteenth coming before the twentieth and twenty first centuries, or maybe just a consequence of me having concentrating my masters research on our relationship with the 1800’s, but it seems to me that us social justice types approach SRO’s with a markedly Victorian sensibility. This similarity is not surprising as we can thank the Victorians for establishing that society as a whole has a responsibility to reflect on and rectify unequal social relations. Moreover, they also laid a lot of the groundwork for the professions that we still use to measure the health and wellness of society (social work, nursing, public health, sociology). Like the forebears of these professions, we are also troubled that the only shelter some people have are the grimy, dimly lit, stale smelling hovels that SRO’s are widely considered to be.
However, after having the pleasure of spending a year studying the Victorians, I can also attest that not all of their ideas sound so reasonable to a person of the twenty first century. For instance, consider that Florence Nightingale—whom we still credit and indeed revere for establishing modern nursing—was a vocal opponent of the germ theory of disease. Instead, Nightingale supposed that people became sick when they absorbed things that (their/other people’s) bodies had already excreted. Consequently, she contended that nursing practice should promote sanitation, proper ventilation, and fresh air. While these practices correspond with modern understandings of infection control, it is important to note that prevailing theory does not consider traces of other people’s previous occupation of a space to be inherently pathogenic; rather, this model encourages us to suppose that contagious diseases are caused by bacteria or virions. Thus, according to the germ theory, clear evidence of bodily traffic is a convenient indicator that a person should be wary of a space. As these measures are only correlated with sickness, not its putative cause, a reasonable person should not be wary of a space simply because it is stuffy, or scuffy. However, as my quasi-scientific, initial incredulity that certain dank spaces could be considered a liveable space suggests, at the very least I am not an intuitively reasonable person.
An alternative to continuing to confuse “healthy living” with society’s apparent preference for the things traditionally associated with the middle class (having the time and means to scour surfaces, replace worn fixtures, luxury of having a home that is a haven from the smells and bustle of the public sphere), is to take pause and recognize moralizing for what it is, and to question the validity of our prejudices. I am not a scientist, and cannot scientifically evaluate what biological implications a building will have on a given person. Not only is it logically problematic to come to a conclusion based on authority that I don’t have, in the case of dismissing the habitability of SRO’s, such an argument is unethical. This is because it uncritically reiterates (as if it were common sense) the unproven terms of an argument that speaks to powerful interests—the transformation of the DTES from the community that it is to an area that people with more money will want to buy into.
So, in the interest of playing devil’s advocate (or, in this case, should that be adversary?) and testing my first assumptions, let’s take a take a moment to stimulate a neglected part of our knowledge economy. There were other easily observable signs that SRO’s are not only habitable but desirable places to live. For instance, upon interacting with many “building caretakers,” my impression was that this term was meaningful in many senses. Indeed, while waiting to ask for permission to put up posters, I could not help but overhear interactions in which it sounded as if tenants found building managers to be supportive of their personal interests and reliable advocates. Additionally, if you go through Hope in Shadows pictures it becomes obvious people’s single rooms are the sites of significant events in their lives, and in some cases are not only regarded as basic shelter but as a person’s home.
Now, I hope that it is clear that these few examples should not be taken as an argument that we should be unconcerned about people’s environments; it should go without saying that everyone’s health and safety should be fostered. However, I think that part of this serving this imperative is ensuring that in our talk we do not write-off the older buildings which are key sites in the DTES nexus of support/community because we are too busy dwelling on concerns that are ungrounded in evidence.
 Mariana Valverde, The Age of Light, Soap & Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885-1925 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 54.
 Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England (The United States of America: University of Chicago Press), 180-181, 188.