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#48 - Summer 2008 Newsletter

I've been a street nurse in Toronto for 20 years. I have received the Atkinson Economic Justice Award which permits me to pursue my passions for nursing and working on homelessness and housing issues. In this newsletter I hope to report on my activities, create a link to a broader group of individuals who care about these social issues and encourage critical debate.

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  1. Housing First’ is about a national housing program LAST!
  2. Sweep the streets! An opinion piece: ‘Toronto adopts Bush Homeless Czar’s plan: Another View of ‘Streets to Homes’ Programs.’  By Beric German.
1.  ‘Housing First’ is about a national housing program LAST!

Across the country there are serious warning signs of an economic and policy shift away from any consideration of shelter and housing as a human right.

The federal government continues to increase both military spending and the projected number of years that Canadian troops are expected to remain in an illegal war in Afghanistan.  At the same time, the federal homelessness program (HPI) is (once again) scheduled for termination.  In addition, federal spending remains withheld from programs for social good such as a national housing program, national childcare program, a national home care program, improved employment insurance or better pensions for seniors.

Most provinces continue to refuse to channel funds to affordable housing programs, emergency shelters, increased welfare rates or an adequate minimum wage.  The provinces, and for most part their municipal counterparts have not collaborated to solve or fund many of the crises that I have written about in 47 issues of this newsletter: inadequate shelter, decaying infrastructure, hunger, public health hazards including tuberculosis and bedbugs, homeless deaths and hate crimes against homeless people.  It may be unimaginable, but some cities even continue to refuse to provide the most basic life saving measure for homeless children and families – an emergency shelter.

Emerging and taking a strong hold is the philosophy, policy and practice called ‘Housing First’ that, at its very base, has nothing to do with housing, housing for all, or the right to safe and affordable housing.  In fact:

‘Housing First’ is about a national housing program last. 

‘Housing First’ is about raising social assistance rates last.

‘Housing First’ is about ending hunger last.

‘Housing First’ is the new mantra being used to introduce and justify economic policies that ensure further withdrawal of life-saving aid to a suffering population.   As Naomi Klein would say “We have been shocked”.  In her groundbreaking book Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism Klein outlines numerous examples of populations who, already devastated by disaster and tragedy such as the Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, then suffer an even worst fate at the hands of politicians, developers and governments who take advantage of chaos and crisis to introduce what would have normally been considered regressive policies.

Extreme street sweeps of homeless people, always predictable during cities’ Olympics, visits by Popes and Queens and summer tourism season are now a matter of course and policy in Canadian cities.  It may be called ‘Housing First’, Streets to Homes, Hostels to Homes or a ‘10 year plan to end homelessness’ in your city.  Whatever it’s called it warrants that we examine the program more closely.  Listen to the frontline workers and activists.  Beric German below writes on the Toronto experience, informed by the many homeless people and frontline workers that have spoken to him.


2.  Toronto adopts Bush Homeless Czar’s plan: Another View of ‘Streets to Homes’ Programs

Philip Mangano, often referred to as Bush’s homelessness czar, has been travelling around North America promoting what he calls a “housing first” policy. He and the Bush administration, and more recently the Harper government, are concentrating on what they refer to as “street homelessness” (those people visibly living on the street), as opposed to fully funding national housing programs with appropriate supports.  The City of Toronto has already swallowed his bait, and is expanding their “streets to homes” program under the guise of dealing with panhandling in downtown Toronto.  Rejecting the creation of new panhandling laws, they’re hiring 48 new housing and social workers.

Efforts by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) had resulted in Canadian cities, mayors, homeless advocates, and organizations declaring homelessness a National Disaster in 1998.  A quote from Mangano seems to show that not only does he agree, but he’s going to do something about it.  He says, “Can we reach into this disaster, and pull out something that will be helpful to historically homeless people?  I think the answer to that is yes.”

The US got hit with his barrage earlier than Canada, and by 2006, 220 communities across the US were adopting his policies.  Homelessness was becoming ugly and particularly evident in the centres of commerce, the US’ largest cities.  The blight of panhandling and the encumbering of sidewalks became too much, and the visibility of homelessness was becoming a national “disgrace” – a word activists use interchangeably with disaster.  Mangano’s voice seems proactive.  “We are no longer content to simply manage the crisis; we’re beginning to end the disgrace.”

Mangano is a strong supporter of the Bush administration, which financially promotes and funds his “street homeless” approach. He equates his mission with the abolition of slavery and in regards to homelessness he refers to himself as an “abolitionist”.  When he refers to the Republicans, who are slashing and burning social and housing programs, he says “Republicans ended slavery and they’ll end homelessness too.” 

“Weapons of mass displacement”

But by “end homelessness”, Mangano means remove the visible homeless from the wealthy urban centres – simply move them out of sight.  A critic from San Francisco refers to the Bush-Mangano approach as “weapons of mass displacement” (WMD).  In Toronto, we can see this in the fact that the Toronto Community Housing units given to “streets to homes” clients are those that have already been rejected three times by people on the affordable housing waiting list.

Like Bush, Mangano is a propagandist extraordinaire.  At times you might think that he is a housing activist, and he seems to share our views on “housing first”.  For example, housing activists and even Toronto’s seemingly soft approach, do not agree with new panhandling laws.  And Mangano too, has made strong statements on radio and elsewhere that punitive police approaches don’t work.  Yet there remains no call in Toronto or elsewhere to end these police activities.

Critics in the US and Canada agree that the soft approach doesn’t eliminate the role of police to make sure that city centres are pristine and free of beggars.  It is not what is said or written down that matters, but what in reality happens.  US critics point out that diminishing downtown street homelessness is accompanied by an increase in rural homelessness.  That is what happens when you are driven out of town.

The Mangano show travels the continent, city after city, until both Canada and the US have taken up his vision nationally.  It helps that he has a strong show-biz background.  He was both the agent and the manager of the famous musical groups Peter, Paul and Mary, and Buffalo Springfield.

So, where are we at in Toronto, Canada and the US?

We all agree that a housing first position is reasonable.  So now what?  Officials have adopted activists’ words, but their actions don’t reflect our meaning.  In that sense, Canada’s (in)action position on housing issues is consistent with those of Mangano, Bush, or the conservative mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg.  If there are minor differences, they are in tone and not substance.

Long before neoliberalism, the adoption of the language of the opposition has been a necessary and wise component for those who might fool us.  But neoliberalism is at play now, and this old tactic is being employed in more sinister and sometimes very popular ways.  Phrases like, ‘the spread of democracy’ and even ‘housing first’ come to mind.

In fact, “housing first” is language taken from the Conservative federal government’s HPI website: “The Homelessness Partnership Initiative (HPI) is the cornerstone of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and takes a housing-first approach.” []

In Toronto, the demise of the hostel system, including recent cuts removing 300 shelter beds, came at a savings of approximately $5M per year, which was shared by the province and the city.  The City’s strategy that purports to be about panhandling does not return these life-saving beds, so these savings came at the expense of the health of homeless people.  At the same time, as part of the “housing first” strategy, workers are no longer allowed to provide blankets or food on the streets.

The same criticism can be levelled at the provincial government when it doesn’t return the monies that were cut back by the Tories before them – including deep cuts to social assistance rates that pushed people onto the streets, and cancellation of thousands of affordable housing units.  Consultations around poverty reduction are cheap and insulting when the government continues to ignore communities that ask: “where is the raise in welfare?”, “where is the housing?”, “where is the employment insurance?”, and “where is the higher minimum wage?”

“This city, this country, should be ashamed, deeply ashamed.”

As far as the cutbacks to hostels are concerned, consider Larry Scanlan’s response to visiting a couple of shelters during the winter of 2007-2008.  He is a well known Canadian writer who went into the shelters to see for himself.  His conclusion is instructive.  “This city, this country, should be ashamed, deeply ashamed.”

There will be an ongoing debate between what city officials say about their delivery of services, and our view from the frontlines.  Larry Scanlan’s direct observations confirm our serious concerns.

If the city had sent out a clear message to the police to discontinue their present behaviour towards homeless people, advocates would feel more comfortable. The new “housing first” strategy, which is in fact the “streets to homes” strategy, has evolved alongside very serious brutality against the poor.  This is consistent with the information on the New York model provided by frontline workers there during a visit by TDRC.

Before the recent expansion of Toronto’s “streets to homes” program, frontline workers were already crying foul about how it was unravelling as City officials including police implement a neoliberal agenda at the expense of poor and homeless people.

“Streets to homes” funding has been at the expense of shelters and other social services.  Much of the city’s present spending on the project came from the federal government’s Homelessness Partnership Initiative (HPI), and while “streets to homes” got funded, other projects were cut back.  The city continues to pressure agencies to reduce other support work and dedicate themselves to the “streets to homes” strategy.

Now the city is expanding their policy, cleaning the streets, which is the real intent of “streets to homes”.  Canadian neoliberal policy does not include a national housing program.  Window-dressing will do just fine, and whenever we are asked about homelessness, local spokespeople, like Toronto’s Mayor Miller, General Manager of Shelter Housing and Support Phil Brown, and City Councillor Joe Mihevc, come forward with the revelation that large numbers of people are being housed.  Questions remain about how and where they are housed.

The “housing first” or “streets to homes” strategy is being used across North America.  It has become the de-facto national housing program for Canada and its originator the US. On a daily basis, frontline workers and homeless people see how this works out in real life.  We must consistently oppose this neoliberal policy.  Again, Bush, Mangano, and the corporations are outmanoeuvring us.  This regressive approach to homelessness cannot take the place of a fully funded national housing program and a fully funded emergency shelter system.

It is very premature for congratulations regarding the achievement of decriminalization of homeless people.  In the period between 2004 and 2007 poor people in Toronto were being targeted and were a big focus of police attention. There was a whopping 288% increase in charges under the Safe Streets Act – up from 2,725 to 10,584.  If the city is not to criminalize homeless people, then it must send out a cease and desist order to police.  The silence is deafening.

Officially, homeless people are not to be criminalized or harassed, unofficially, the old policy remains in place.  Homelessness is being defined as those people you can see openly in the streets of Canada’s large cities.  We must be consistent, whether harassment is official or unofficial we must condemn it.  And window-dressing in the downtown core will not replace a national housing program.

Presently, the Toronto public is being told that the city is now dealing effectively and humanely with homelessness – in fact, just the opposite.  One community worker at an agency for homeless people expresses a common view when describing the expansion of “streets to homes” with derision: “when there are vacancies in affordable-rent apartments, the buildings are extremely sub-standard and in unsafe areas that are plagued by drug-trafficking.”  She adds, “It’s ridiculous to add [housing] workers without proper housing”. Even some of the most infamous slum landlords are rejecting “streets to homes” tenants.

The program is expanding throughout Ontario with more than a nod from the Province.  It has long been hoped that people would switch from the more expensive hostels to individual housing units.  The new slogan is ‘hostels to homes’.

Mangano’s plan, that of cleaning up cities’ downtown cores, has now been packaged and sold at the expense of a national housing program and with the creation of poorer conditions for people who are presently experiencing homelessness.  As a recession approaches, we are left with poor tools to ride out what growing homelessness will bring.

by Beric German, Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC)

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Thanks to Beric German for his opinion piece, Andrew Mindszenthy for editing, Anthony Rapoport for layout, design and web support.