Harry Lehotsky, Inner-City Preacher, Activist and Change Agent

Media Appearances, Poverty, Frontier Centre

Frontier Centre: You’ve lived and preached in Winnipeg’s inner city for more than 20 years. In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge facing your neighbourhood?

Rev. Harry Lehotsky: For people from inside and outside the area to be honest about what our problems are all about. It is not about presence or a lack of money. It is about the human condition, really, about the selfishness of people unwilling to deal with them as their own problems. It’s about the failure of agencies to see what they are really all about and to be honest about what they are saying, doing and achieving. It is about making hard decisions about being more effective, personally and agency-wise.

FC: The great divide in this community is between those who believe that government should direct society to fix things and those who believe that individuals should take responsibility for improving their lives. Where do you stand?

HL: Government has a responsibility to govern, not to micro-manage. It has a responsibility to make sure that everybody has equal opportunities. Where people need to have their basic rights defended, government has to be there. When I talk about zoning issues, for example, I’m saying we need some kind of protection from the market forces that would take over the whole community for the purpose of exploitation of the poor. But at the same time we don’t need everything so micro-managed that there is no potential for any more development unless the government says so. I think we need more general foresight.

FC: Can you briefly describe your successes and failures at New Life Ministries? On the success side, how have you mobilized the local economy?

HL: Our main success has basically been in mobilizing an interest in the inner city and in demanding honesty about the issues that face us. We’ve been independent from the usual local funding circuit in terms of how we sustain our own ministry, so that has enabled me to be more honest. Because I wasn’t dependent on the existing clique to get things done, I could be straightforward about different situations. I could be direct about a major success, our housing project. Housing became not just a means of helping the community but also of sustainability for our operating side of our operations.

FC: How many units did you rehabilitate altogether?

HL: We’ve renovated and sold twenty-two houses, and another four are underway as houses for resale. But then we have also done a hundred units in transitional multiple housing supported by government grants. We’ve successfully worked with government in terms of the capital side of things, where they have helped fund renovations. Once the renovations have been funded, we should be able to sustain what we do. That has been the principle we’ve worked on and it has been a big success. The Café and the Theatre have been a success because of what they achieved in the community, in terms of integrating different levels of society in one place, in a place of pride in the community. A building is nice, but seeing people’s lives change has been my greatest joy in twenty-three years here.

FC: Have you had any failures that strike you?

HL: People whose lives don’t change, including our own sometimes. With this kind of work, we are brought face to face with our shortcomings and are reminded continually of our own failings in our personalities, our style of work, the way we conduct ourselves and our lack of skill in communications. All those things happen when you are in the middle of all this to remind you of those kinds of personal failures. In terms of some things that we tried that didn’t work, a paging program for crime watch failed. If somebody saw something happen, or about to happen, they would phone it in to a dispatcher and residents and businesses with pagers registered on the system would get an instant page describing the event and the suspects. But delays in the service and in getting the page out to people made it a bust. That was, I think, a $4,000 learning experience. We did catch a couple of crooks, and that was good, but that was it.

FC: If you had had the dispatching system working properly, would the police have responded?

HL: Yes, they got the pages, too. A couple of times I actually cornered a burglar in one of the businesses and then waited for the police to come, and they did.

FC: You say profit is not a bad word. Why do you think that?

HL: Because you need profit to make anything sustainable. You need profit for the lean years. From scripture on down, there were years where they made lots so that in the years that were coming when they didn’t make lots, they were able to make do. We need to have profits to drive enterprises. We need for-profit businesses in our community. Profit for corporations or for people makes them sustainable. There is nothing wrong with that.

FC: Why do you think private ownership is better than collective ownership? Why should somebody own their own home?

HL: You take more of a vested interest in the stuff that you own. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah was a great example. When rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, he had everybody rebuild a portion of the wall; it was a collective effort. But he said, “I want you to rebuild the portion of the wall that is right in front of your house.” In other words, if your family doesn’t do a good job on that portion of the wall guess where the enemy is coming in first? Group enterprises can be undertaken, but we work best where we are personally invested. Public can be good, but the notion of private is very important as well.

FC: Do you have an opinion on rent control? The conventional wisdom says that controlling apartment rents helps poor people. Does it?

HL: You need to have some places that are affordable for low-income people. So what do you do then? The government gives maybe $275 or $300 a month in terms of rent, but to help them they should really be raising the social assistance rates. I think we need rent control for some older buildings in downtown, especially those that have received government funding. Otherwise I think people that are investing their own money in rental housing, without the benefit of public sector funding, shouldn’t face rent controls.

FC: How are building codes an obstacle to inner-city revitalization?

HL: Sometimes building codes are great if you are building from scratch. But if you are substantially renovating a hundred-year-old home, the widening of stairs and increasing the rise in run of the stairs to brand-new building standards is irrelevant. Some of the issues around head room and other things you just can’t achieve in an old house. To force that artificially onto an old building brings great disrespect to it and forces people into situations where they do things off the books, both for taxation purposes and because they won’t be able to get a building permit. So they hire some unscrupulous contractor who does a rotten job and just quite often rips people off in the process. I think we could be much more sensitive to both the condition of the buildings and the conditions for people who need to do renovations on existing buildings.

FC: Those inflexible rules for converting offices and warehouses downtown into private living spaces confirm that view. To come up to modern-day building codes makes the effort unaffordable.

HL: It is a big issue. If it is made unaffordable, then people either don’t do it at all or find ways to do it in an unsafe way. Then at the end you have an unsafe renovation or you hire somebody unscrupulous to do the work for so it doesn’t have to be on the books. Either way, the city loses and people lose. We need government to be more understanding of these things.

FC: People think that welfare started with government, but it didn’t. Over time, many of the traditional safety-net institutions like the family and the church have been crowded out by government welfare agencies. What is the proper balance between government and these other institutions?

HL: When you talk about poverty, you have to acknowledge its different causes. Unless you know what is causing the poverty for a specific family, you can’t deal with it. With their heavy case loads, welfare workers don’t have time to get familiar with the reasons for poverty in a specific family, so they can’t tailor their approaches. Now with rules about privacy, we basically don’t allow people to talk to each other any more about what we know to be the truth in their lives and the situation in the community.

FC: So there is a loss of neighborhood information.

HL: There is a loss of neighborhood information that’s relevant and recent and can be shared. Even different government departments are hampered because they don’t talk to each other any more. The situation is so fragmented now, and we have cemented that in because of the inability to share information about people when it needs to be shared.

FC: Which itself has introduced a fairly high degree of moral hazard into the system. Mutual aid societies had friendly home visits.

HL: Now you can’t even talk about what is going on; you are not supposed to know. This has left people more and more isolated and more and more they play different systems off against each other in a way that only hurts themselves. They become the masters of their own demise instead of being helped by the people who could have helped them. I think churches are best positioned to do some of this stuff because they get to know people. Some of the other agencies in communities still do know people very well. I think there should be a choice where people go with another certain service provider as opposed to social assistance. They already have choice in terms of child welfare agencies. Why not introduce some level of choice in terms of welfare agencies, in terms of public assistance payouts?

FC: Your colleague, Larry Gregan, once said that people in the inner city are the most over-governed in our community. Do you agree? What does that mean?

HL: It means we have more people telling us what’s good for us and what’s right for us and more people speaking up for us than anybody else. Everywhere else, people speak up for themselves. They pretty much get to run their own lives. Even down here, people are basically functional, but poor. They have I don’t know how many social workers stapled to their butts just figuring out what it is that they can or can’t do, should or shouldn’t do, to cut the cheque for them, to run the programs for them, when really they can be doing a lot of it for themselves. The people who can’t do for themselves, the ones that really need our help, have set the mandate for everyone. It is really a confused system and I agree that the poor are over-governed.

FC: Why hasn’t our political system, which taxes almost away half our incomes, been more successful in changing the fundamentals of the decline in the core? It seems to have the resources but not the ability or the will to turn things around.

HL: Because there are a lot of vested interests in the bureaucracy itself. They have worked in a certain way in the past and they want to keep on working that way, because a lot of their co-workers would be cut if they were to change anything. Unions have organized these workers. Unions aren’t necessarily bad, but one fellow made a great point at the recent City summit. When you have unions working in a monopoly environment, in a highly bureaucratized system of service delivery, then you have a huge mess on your hands. It makes change almost impossible. Nobody else is allowed to do anything differently, or demonstrate a different model of service provision. In that scenario, change is incredibly tough and poor people continue getting lost in the shuffle.

FC: Are taxes in Manitoba too high or too low?

HL: I think too high. When only now, near the end of June, you’re starting to earn for yourself, that’s nuts. I see all the ways in which money is spent on things that we don’t need other people to do for us, that we could be doing for ourselves or let other people do for much less. We could be doing way better for the money that is being put in.

FC: If you were able to reform our welfare system, in what direction would you go?

HL: We need to understand why specific individuals that are on the rolls are poor and then address those specific issues. If they are poor because of addiction, we shouldn’t just cut them a cheque. We should help them deal with their addiction, which for a while is more expensive. But in the long run it’s going to be much better for everybody involved, including their kids. Child welfare ties into so many different things. If people are continually destructive, they need to be held accountable. I think we need to be more honest when welfare is not looking after a person’s welfare, when it really isn’t looking into the public’s best interest. In those cases, we shouldn’t be calling it social assistance it becomes anti-social assistance. To be honest about the terminology, to be straightforward about the causes of somebody’s poverty makes us more creative in the ways that we address it. Then we are far ahead in terms of really looking after our citizens. I think we have a responsibility for that.

FC: Do you agree with lifetime limits? Surveys taken in places that have them indicate that large majorities of those whose incomes declined because they took low-wage work after their benefits expired reported that they felt better off.

HL: I am concerned that people have enough, so I am slow to agree with something like that until I can actually see it and talk to some of the people involved. But I think a general rule on limits might be helpful, as long as it is flexible enough to accommodate special cases. You want to be careful on that. But I do think there comes a point where you have to admit that the system isn’t healthy anymore and that there may be another way for that person to make a go of it.

FC: Your criticisms of the welfare establishment sometimes have been pretty colourful, including a reference to it as a bunch of “poverty pimps.” What did you mean by that?

HL: Basically, there are pimps that work ladies on the street. In many ways, the poor are paraded out in front of everybody else as the people who need your help, and for you to help them you’ve got to come through the agencies that say they really help them. The pimp will argue that he is really looking after the girls’ best interests. I see the same with a lot of the people who say they are looking after the poor’s best interests, but both of them are taking the biggest cut. They push for money to come to the poor, but they are actually getting more of it for themselves. It is very disappointing to see that.

FC: You’ve called agencies like the Social Planning Council incestuous. What do you mean by that? Is it just the same faces everywhere on committees?

HL: Not incestuous in a sexual sense, but it becomes very inbred. It is the same people, and even the same family sometimes, that control these boards. They sit on each other’s boards and they rotate seats. Then they evaluate each other’s effectiveness, and nobody clues into it. The executive director of the Social Planning Council, for example, is also the chair of the board of the Aboriginal Centre, one of the groups that got the highest grant in the last homelessness fund, which the social planning council helped administer. Many are employed in different agencies but the system operates almost like a family business and that concerns me. They vote on each other’s proposals, but it means that these people basically take care of each other instead of openly and honestly evaluating what programs get the most benefit for the most people.

FC: You refer to the segregation and the politicization of social services along racial and cultural lines as a recipe for a lack of accountability. What’s wrong with different cultures or groups that take some responsibility for social spending?

HL: In the housing fund, you had a pot of money designated for aboriginal housing and a pot of money designated for general homelessness as well. A committee then took over both streams and they spent all the money. Aboriginal groups helped to spend all the money in the general fund because that was allowed to be spent on themselves, too, but then they had the segregated funds that they could play with just for their own private projects that nobody else could touch. I think that if we are really going to be honest about the issues of homelessness or child welfare, we have to be culturally sensitive and have some culturally appropriate programming and hiring. But at the same time you don’t segregate dollars and say this is for aboriginal only and then this is for everybody else, plus aboriginals. I think we need to have a more open system and, in a society where we hope to have more integration, to behave as more integrated people. You shouldn’t segregate people. They like the notion that they are in control of their own thing and nobody else can touch them and nobody else can evaluate it. If we look at the history of the way that these things have developed, we can see the abuses that have happened under the guise of independence and segregation.

FC: How effectively do you think our child protection services are doing their job?

HL: I think not very well. They come in at the end of a family crisis, after beatings and all the other stuff. They are good at investigating some of that. But people in the community can see households where underage kids are running around at night, and just because they are in the care of somebody over 12 years of age, the official world sees them as adequately supervised. Meanwhile the parents in the house can be actually breaking the criminal code, which says there is not supposed to be a constant state of drunkenness or immorality in the home. The child welfare system doesn’t seem to care because they are not violating their statutes. This is not adequate child protection. If the house is twisted, it needs help before the kids go further off the rails.

FC: In two senses you have fought for safe living conditions in your neighbourhood, by your challenge to the underground economy and by creating housing with conditions for behaviour. Is public safety the most important precondition for a successful living space?

HL: I think so. You have to feel confident that you can live without being attacked, that you can walk in your hallways without being jumped or harassed and that extends then out to the community. But we need to spark that in the microcosms of community, which is the local building, the apartment buildings, the houses and the back lanes. We need to have people feeling safe, otherwise they won’t stay in the neighbourhood long enough to implement any changes. You want to have people moving in to a community that have different income levels, and given a choice, all other things being equal, people with the resources to buy out of unsafe neighbourhoods will do so.

FC: Your interface with the Winnipeg Police Services has not always been pleasant. Do you think they are doing enough?

HL: Overall, I think so. But I think we need a higher percentage of the police force actually out on the street. Why are we hiring more people than other municipalities? Certainly not because people here are of a lower moral standing then elsewhere. Something is twisted in the recruiting process. Something is wrong in a system where you have a lower percentage of cops actually out on the streets than in other communities. I think we need to have something like the COMPSTAT program that says you need to be able to prove that you have a quicker response time to trouble. The bottom line is we need our streets safer, and we will hold you to that. If you can’t deal with that, then you are fired. I think we need to hold people to that very strictly and then let them figure out the rest.

FC: The latest round of police sweeps in Winnipeg seems to have been more productive than previous efforts of the same sort. Do you think they will ultimately work? Are they a sufficient substitute for regular foot patrols?

HL: I think so, because they focus on the people who are causing the biggest amount of problems, not on people who aren’t causing the problem but who like to visit with police to feel safe. Community policing unfortunately gets pushed and pulled from so many different directions it ends up devolving into something where everybody wants a regular visit or sighting of a police officer so that they feel safe. I want to know that the police are regularly checking up on the guys that are causing the most trouble in our neighbourhood. The cops in our neighbourhood know who those guys are. I want them to be chasing the regulars and causing grief to the regulars and that way the regulars know that they are going to be right up in their face. It doesn’t wipe out crime, but it keeps it much more under wraps. It makes everybody else feel safer than just seeing a cop and greeting him by name and by face once a day.

FC: John M. King public school sits right behind your home and church, and drug dealers openly cater to the children in the school yard. Why does this continue? Are school officials doing enough to stop it?

HL: If they know, then they do something about it. I know the staff there and they will phone and try to work with some of their older students who come back onto the school yard. The key question is, “Do they get a quick enough response when they share their information?” But there’s the problem of standards of evidence. You might not get enough proof from a kid carrying drugs to other kids, and even if they’re caught not, much happens because you can’t prosecute a kid that’s under age. We need help there on the federal side. We need also need help in terms of the parents of these children who are somehow able to keep collecting the welfare cheque as if they are being good parents. We need to find ways of maybe redirecting that welfare payment instead as a family payment, to leave those parents on their own and take away their kids and put that welfare payment into a system that actually works for the kids.

FC: Are public schools performing their educational mission as well as they could? In what way do you think that we could improve public schools?

HL: I don’t think that kids should be advanced without actually achieving. I think that there could be ways to incorporate tutoring in the system and redirect some funding for tutoring help to parents who really want to see their kids succeed but still want them in the public school system. Maybe the private school system can teach us something about it. Maybe there are some parents that home school that are good at certain subjects that could take kids for certain subjects and do tutoring after hours for them and receive some kind of stipend from government. Right now the school system seems to be more intent on social work than the basics of education. When you get down to the basics you can actually get a lot done and the social stuff starts to take care of itself. There are marvellous examples of some of that, whether it’s Marva Collins or others. But if you start chasing the social issues around education, you just get tired out, you never really resolve the issue and you still haven’t taught kids anything in the meantime. It is not the teacher’s job to do social work, nor the cops’.

FC: You have expressed some frustration about the public sector’s obsession with process and lack of focus on results.

HL: You need to see which systems actually work. In the housing sector, that was quickly evident with Lazarus Housing, not one of favourite partners of government because we are fiercely independent. We did a lot of different things with our housing, but dollar for dollar it held up against some other organizations. We could get a house renovated more cheaply and better than a lot of other groups, but they didn’t want to see that. Other groups got way more than us to do way less, just because they were well connected. It was extremely frustrating to see that kind of favouritism, not just from government but from the private agencies and foundations that supplement government help.

FC: If you had to change a few key policies in the fight against poverty, what would they be?

HL: Make it results-based instead of process-based, and evaluate what is happening. Employment programs need to be evaluated that way, so real opportunities for employment open up as opposed to some programs that just say they are engaged in the process of helping people find jobs. In addictions treatment, we need to start going with the people that are actually running programs that work and who maybe do it for less money, and then start supporting those systems. Look at the schools that are actually working with kids to break the general generational cycle of poverty, and then start to reward those folks. Reward what works and don’t reward what doesn’t with any more funding. Those are harsh words, but it needs to happen or things will never change. Break up the cliques and the monopolies, break up the self-evaluation with social agencies evaluating their own efforts.

FC: And pat themselves on the back at the same time?

HL: And collect a lot of money in the process for telling us something we already know.

FC: You are not just a social activist you are also a minister of the church. What role does the spiritual focus play in the lives of the poor? Is the general decline in faith in our society adding to the challenge?

HL: The greatest change that I have seen happens in criminals, alcoholics and addicts when they know that they are really forgiven and they know that they have somebody who is willing to walk with them on the way. The power of forgiveness is an awesome thing. It is not just an abstract concept in a religious faith when I talk about forgiveness through Christ for eternal salvation, but it is also a temporal improvement. It has a huge impact when the people come in contact with an institution, that should be the church, which demonstrates that kind of forgiveness and introduces hope in different ways. The emotions of forgiveness and hope are so important. Then you can start talking about joy and peace in a meaningful way. But you have to have those first two, otherwise it is hard to get past anything else. The church is well positioned to do that and deliver it in a way that transcends. You don’t need government funding to do it. It doesn’t have to be just the Christian church; there are other churches, as well.

FC: Don’t you find it ironic that so many of the people who ignored what you were doing somehow created Saint Harry once they learned of your illness?

HL: Some of that is there. But what I find interesting is that there are still people who come around saying, “Hell, we never even knew you existed. Where have you been hiding all these years?” Sometimes they may have heard about me from someone else that didn’t like me and wrote me off. Quite often, when people actually get to have a personal conversation with me, their opinion changes. In our society, we tend to delegate must of our compassion into charities so that other people take care of the less fortunate.