On Achieving Sustainability Goals: Leave No One Behind

The three main dimensions of sustainability are: social, economic, and environment. At its core, social sustainability means the aspects of sustainability that relate to people. Simply said, it’s about ensuring that humans have what they need, now and in the future. Of course, part of that means ensuring that the physical environment stays in good shape. But really, the emphasis in social sustainability is on ensuring humans have what they need. The social pillar of sustainability refers to, in broad terms, public policies that support social issues. These social issues relate to our wellbeing and include aspects like healthcare, education, housing, employment, etc. This includes affordable housing, physical and mental medical support, education training opportunities, employment opportunities, access to support, and of course safety and security. Benefits of social sustainability: providing people with a high quality of life, affordable housing and services, and healthy, well-planned, walkable neighbourhoods, allows the city to attract new investments and migrants.

Another way to describe social, economic, and environment is “people, profit, and planet” respectively. Social sustainability blends traditional social policy areas and principles, such as equity and health, with emerging issues concerning participation, needs, social capital, the economy, the environment, and more recently, with the notions of happiness, wellbeing and quality of life. Social sustainability is much more qualitative than it is quantitative. It addresses the ways in which members of a community live their lives and interact with each other. It intertwines the maintenance of basic human needs along with the exercising of political, economic, and social freedoms. Social sustainability is a process for creating sustainable successful places that promote wellbeing, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work. It combines design of the physical realm with design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement, and space for people and places to evolve.

ESG is a system for how to measure the sustainability of a company or investment in three specific categories: environmental, social and governance. That is, a successful business is one that makes a profit while supporting and sustaining the environment and society. ESG looks at how the world impacts a company or investment, whereas sustainability focuses on how a company (or investment) impacts the world. ESG metrics are a measure of how a company manages the risks of environmental, social and governance issues. The risks to its business and shareholders, not the risks the business creates for the outside world, to people and planet. ESG is often confused with the concept of sustainability. ESG metrics are used to screen investments based on corporate policies and to encourage companies to act responsibly. This only includes the risks to its business and shareholders, not the risks the business creates for the outside world, to people and planet.

The social equity dimension of sustainability refers to how burdens and benefits of different policy actions are distributed in a community. The more evenly they are distributed, the more equitable the community is, and this even distribution is reflected in economic, ecologic, and social outcomes. Social equity takes into account systemic inequalities to ensure everyone in a community has access to the same opportunities and outcomes. Equity of all kinds acknowledges that inequalities exist and works to eliminate them. The building blocks of social sustainability are inclusive, just, and resilient societies where citizens have voice and governments listen and respond. Such societies support growth and poverty reduction today and into the future. Social sustainability works alongside economic and environmental sustainability.  Social equity – and positive social impact more generally – was supposed to be central to sustainability from the start. Elkington has since expressed regret that the social part of the equation has fallen by the wayside.

Social factors such as addiction, family tragedy, job loss, domestic violence, mental illness, and more play a heavy part in the cause of homelessness. The common denominator is a major crack in their life foundation. Many people focus solely on structural factors, like a lack of low-cost housing. “Too often being homeless is considered a personal and a moral failing, when it’s actually a structural and political problem” that makes visible the growing inequalities of our society. The five most common reasons for homelessness: substance abuse, housing costs or the lack of affordable housing, escaping domestic violence, poverty, and disabilities and mental health. Homelessness is a manifestation of underlying social vulnerabilities such as physical and mental illness, disability, substance abuse, and chronic unemployment. Increase in rent and loss of employment coupled by high standards of living highly contribute to homelessness.

Housing instability encompasses a number of challenges, such as having trouble paying rent, overcrowding, moving frequently, or spending the bulk of household income on housing. Homelessness isn’t someone else’s issue. It has a ripple effect throughout the community. It impacts the availability of healthcare resources, crime and safety, the workforce, and the use of tax dollars. Further, homelessness impacts the present as well as the future. Many U.S. communities depend on the Point-in-Time count, an annual street count of people experiencing homelessness. However, this one-time snapshot does not show a clear picture of how homelessness changes from night to night, who is entering and existing the homeless response system, and the urgent needs of the people moving throughout it.  Think of homelessness as a bellwether. It’s an indicator for how well our systems are serving the needs of populations who are often the most marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised.

Housing First is example of a sustainable housing alternative that focus on providing rapid access to housing for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Housing First is grounded in a harm reduction philosophy. The basic underlying principle of Housing First is that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they are first housed. This is as true for people experiencing homelessness and those with mental health and addictions issues as it is for anyone. Housing first is a proven model that focuses on first providing stable housing for the homeless, followed by making available a set of individualized supports and services — is much more effective than the current fractured set of supports used to assist persons struggling with mental illness and homelessness, where costs can rapidly escalate. Housing First is an evidence-based practice intended to serve chronically homeless individuals with co-occurring serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

Addiction is a chronic brain disease, leading people to lose control of their lives. It is a public health crisis. One of the key ingredients for a successful Housing First program is harm reduction-informed services. In 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine joined the American Medical Association, defining addiction as a chronic brain disorder (an illness), not a behavioural problem, or just the result of making bad choices. The final aim of Housing First regarding substance use is to offer the best potential conditions in which participants with substance addictions can develop greater resilience capabilities, which are known to help individuals overcome adverse (internal or external) stimuli and to respond better to crises associated with addictions (Southwick et al., 2014). Recovery is accomplished first by ending their homelessness and then by collaborating with them to address health, mental health, addiction, employment, social, familial, spiritual, and other needs.

The upstream causes of poor health in the homeless population include extreme poverty, harsh living environments, trauma and structural barriers to resources/care. The downstream causes include infectious diseases, heart disease, substance use disorders (SUDs) and suicide. They must also contend with competing priorities, such as securing food and shelter, which frequently take precedence over health care. Homeless people may also avoid care owing to a mistrust of the health-care system and experiences of discrimination from providers. Health, health care and housing are inextricably linked. All homeless patients should be connected to services that assist with obtaining housing. Widening socio-structural inequities, especially those arising from homelessness and housing insecurity, are drivers of the growing health inequities in the United States. The most cost-effective way to help the homeless is to give them homes. Addressing housing directly is cheaper than relying on cops and emergency rooms.

Social equity is impartiality, fairness and justice for all people in social policy. Social equity takes into account systemic inequalities to ensure everyone in a community has access to the same opportunities and outcomes. How can social equity be improved? Establish formal and informal networks of service providers and stakeholders. These complex and cross-sectoral networks increase community resilience and ensure that necessary resources and expertise are present to address social equity issues. First and foremost, addressing equity is not just a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, but rather it is about the systems change that needs to happen to address real inequity. A combination of public services and public transport accessibility as a degree of equity and a measure of social sustainability (social sustainability through accessibility and equity). What these and similar programs have in common is maximising the population served by government-backed public facilities, programmes or action.

Within countries, all people, regardless of their backgrounds, have rights and responsibilities to fulfill their potential in life, and lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives in a healthy environment. This means that goals and targets need to be met for all segments of society. Those often left behind are people living in poverty and other vulnerable situations, including children, youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples, refugees and internally displaced persons and migrants. Their voices must be heard, and their active participation as agents of change needs to be promoted. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty and protect the planet; provide the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The global challenges we face include poverty, gender equality, climate change, food security, sustainable agriculture. SDGs provide an opportunity to address these inequities.

The SDGs (sustainable development goals) are a commitment that seeks to address the most urgent problems of the world and they are all interrelated. The pledge to leave no one behind is embedded at the heart of the SDGs. It is a commitment to end extreme poverty in all its forms and to act explicitly to ensure that those who have been left behind can catch up to those who have experienced greater progress. Unless this process is managed in an inclusive way and basic services are provided for the most vulnerable populations, they are likely to be to be left even further behind. We need to identify those who are left behind and the circumstances that prevent their full participation in the benefits of development. The bottom line is that the SDGs are unlikely to be achieved (by 2030) unless progress is made faster for the most marginalized groups.

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