Make social housing more livable with flowers

by Heino Molls
I can always tell a public housing complex in every city and town in Canada when I pass through. Some people call them “housing projects” or other names that are not always complimentary. 
Almost all government housing projects sadly share the appearance of being run down, looking worn and not really maintained. If they are lucky, they get the grass cut in summer and the snow plowed in winter. There are always troubles in these places. Domestic violence, drug dealing and even incidents of people getting shot, happen more frequently in public housing. You can look it up.
We can complain to the government to do something about all this but nothing will be done. Nothing can be done. Even the socialist protesters among us have long given up on these tragic pockets of housing.
The truth is that in the economic climate we live in today. we just can’t justify the cost of a gardening team or clean-up crew to work on these places. We can’t even fix our roads or maintain public transit or provide decent day care. There’s just no money, plain and simple.  
The days that the government looked after all things are over. If we don’t look after things ourselves, they will pretty much go to ruin. A lot of things already have. One of those things is the general upkeep of public housing grounds in our towns and neighbourhoods.
Drive past any public housing and you will see broken fences, peeling paint, stretches of dirt with patches of grass, old furniture from hurried moves made months ago, garbage strewn hurly burly, and the list goes on and on.
I find it difficult to blame people who live in public housing for not maintaining the garden or cleaning up around their building complex. When misfortune and bad luck kicks the crap out of you day in and day out, it’s hard to find the energy to get up and do some gardening outside on a place where you have no control and no ownership.
Not all people can be homeowners. There are many people who have misfortune that prevents them from being lucky enough to buy their own home. People in these circumstances usually don’t have control over where they live. They don’t pick a house. They are “placed” in housing. 
They also have a lot of other challenges to deal with, the least of which is hard work. A lot of these folks are on a first name-basis with hard luck.
The great tragedy in all this is that I believe that gardening and clean up can have a direct impact on reducing crime in public housing, because it provides a pleasant environment and in turn an attitude of hope. I can’t prove it exactly but I believe flowers actually do have power. They smell good, they look clean, they instill a feeling of calmness and they will, I truly believe, compel people to be good to each other.
I have never seen nice flower beds on government housing grounds.
Fundamentals like plumbing and electricity will always be looked after by government trade professionals, albeit badly. But the esthetics, the garbage, the lawn, the garden and the flowers must be looked after by volunteers if they are to even come close to affecting the despair and the crime that comes hand in hand with poor living surroundings. It can only be done by volunteers.
Many people don’t realize that we live in a world where volunteers are not just nice to have around but are essential to our lives. They save our asses everyday in situations we take for granted. In hospitals, life counselling, community workers, food banks, volunteer firefighters — it is a long list and we are always short on volunteers.
I am not sure how we could find volunteer crews to do the work public housing projects need. Maybe a sign could be arranged to acknowledge those who would step forward to do the work or donate the money that it would take to plant, weed, maintain and clean up the grounds of public housing.
The challenges in doing work like this would not be easy to overcome. The bureaucracy connected with gaining permission to do volunteer work on public housing would be the easy part. The worst part, the hardest part of all, may be to convince the residents in these places that work like this can be meaningful. Try telling someone who has not had much good fortune that you are going to make things better for them by planting flowers and cleaning up. You would be the recipient of some serious cynicism.
(Heino Molls is publisher of REM. E-mail