Newsletter No. 8, February 2005
I've been a street nurse in Toronto
for 16 years. In the spring of 2004 I received the
Atkinson Economic Justice Award which permits me to pursue, for up to three
years, 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.
- Toronto City
You will notice there is no smiling picture of me attached with this newsletter. It seemed incongruous with the subject matter. I am extremely unhappy with Toronto’s new plan to deal with “street homelessness”. Over the last 16 years I have watched our municipal level of government ignore deputations, public inquiry and inquest recommendations and reports, even input from its own Homeless Advisory Committee. Listening and responding to any of these recommendations could have prevented hundreds of homeless deaths, tuberculosis outbreaks and the worsening health and ongoing suffering of others.
This newsletter covers several aspects of the heated public policy debate that occurred in recent weeks in Toronto. For a more thorough analysis please see Toronto Disaster Relief Committee’s (TDRC) report at: www.tdrc.net/Response_to_ Homelessness.htm.
On Feb. 2, 2005 Toronto City Council voted 28-9 to approve a plan titled “From the Street into Homes”. It is a report that addresses one of the City’s most serious social issues – homelessness and the serious shortage of social housing and it is indicative of the City’s direction. The report is widely considered to be a response to the more conservative elements of City Council and Toronto’s more right wing media that continually labels homeless people as “vagrants”, thus the new “anti-vagrancy” law.
The report was released on a Friday afternoon without any community consultation, a sure sign it was worthy of careful scrutiny by the community.
The City’s report “From the
Street into Homes” continues to ignore the community wisdom and
solutions. The report introduced an amendment to a City bylaw which will
target a group of people based on their social status. This bylaw change
will prohibit homeless people from sleeping on our City Hall square. It is a
policy setback, unlike anything I have seen at the municipal level. It is
alarming because it mimics the approach of numerous American cities where
homelessness has been criminalized.
Barricades! Why do discussions of homelessness at City Hall seem to always draw police, barricades and increased security?
When homeless activists including nuns, outreach workers, lawyers, and the Raging Grannies converged on City Hall on Feb. 1, hoping to watch City Council debate this report, they were surprised to see barricades at the main door, dozens of yellow-jacketed police and at least 8 more police on horses.
Once inside council chambers, hundreds of people voiced their opinion on the most alarming aspect of the report - the proposed change to the Nathan Phillips Square bylaw which would ban homeless people from sleeping at City Hall square. When the spirited group was asked, they left peacefully.
Labeled as “screaming Trotskyites”, “loony leftists” and depicted as a “tame riot” by the media, the group in fact included homeless people, workers from legal clinics, drop-in centres, shelters, community health centres, parents with young children, seniors, and nurses.
The next day, a much
smaller group returned to watch the Council’s debate. We not only faced
barricades again, but a human wall of security and police officers who
refused myself and others entry to City Hall on the grounds that no one
who had attended the Council meeting the day before would be allowed entry
again! After a 30 minute delay and with assistance from Councillor Paula
Fletcher and the Mayor’s office, we were allowed our rightful entry to the
public City Council meeting. Security continued to apply its own
indiscriminate selection of who could enter City Hall throughout the
remainder of the day, a good illustration of what homeless people face every
day and the dangers of the bylaw to come.
Bylaw against “camping” on Nathan Phillips Square !
Mayor David Miller and some city councillors made promises that forcible removal of homeless people will not occur following the passing of the amendments to this bylaw. Lawyer Peter Rosenthal writes in the Globe and Mail, “such an assurance appears to be either totally disingenuous or very foolish. If the true intent of the measures introduced by City Council is to provide homeless people with reasonable accommodation and coax them into moving into it, why include a bylaw creating an offence?”.
TDRC argues that “The proposal to amend the Nathan Phillips bylaw to ban “camping” is simply an attempt to use municipal legislation to drive homeless people to a less visible location. It will almost certainly be challenged legally as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the proposal is profoundly cruel and – as the New York City experience shows – it will be ineffective in reducing the number of homeless people. Driving homeless people away from the relatively safe location of Nathan Phillips will also frustrate the homeless outreach strategy that underpins the “From the Street into Homes” report by making homeless people less accessible to outreach workers.”
David Miller, candidate for Mayor of Toronto, 2003
Prior to the City Council meeting, more than two dozen interested parties including lawyers, members of the faith community and agencies working with homeless people delivered a unified message to a City Hall committee: Do not amend the bylaw to ban “camping”.
As Bonnie Briggs, a homeless advocate who has been homeless herself said:
“Here we go again. This battle seems never ending. Homeless people constantly have to fight for what’s a basic human right – a place to sleep and right to just be. There is nowhere for these people to go! Except a TB and bedbug infested shelter! Homeless people are not allowed to sleep in the parks, not allowed to sleep on the streets, in parked cars or abandoned buildings and they soon won’t be allowed to sleep in the square. Where pray tell are they expected to sleep?”
Professor Marianne Valverde argues that Nathan Phillips Square is the premier civic space in the City and what is done or not done there sends a message to Toronto and to the country. She suggested that allowing homeless people to sleep there sends a message of inclusiveness whereas, introducing a bylaw that prohibits sleeping sends a message of social exclusion. She also criticized the depiction that homeless people “camp” at City Hall, adding that it promotes the idea that homeless people “choose” to sleep rough. Professor Valverde argued that perhaps homeless people who have no private space (home) and reduced access to private space (coffee shops, malls, transit) may have an even greater claim to public space. (For more information on this topic see Disorderly People at www.tdrc.net/2vid2.htm.)
The American National Coalition for the Homeless, in their 2004 Report "Illegal to be Homeless" writes that “Criminalization is the process of legislating penalties for the performance of life-sustaining functions in public. It also refers to the selective enforcement of existing ordinances. Both practices are intended to harass and arrest homeless people. Laws against obstruction of sidewalks, and public ways such as sitting or lying in public spaces are largely enforced against homeless people.”
Michael Shapcott adds “Criminalizing homelessness is costly (in policing and related costs), it is inhumane and illegal (a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by unfairly targeting one group of people based on their status), and it is ineffective (places like New York City have now rejected policing policies in favour of subsidized housing).”
Councillor Michael Walker led the debate at City Council against the by-law:
“It’s a violation of the citizens who are the weakest, the most vulnerable, the poor, the people we are embarrassed about because they are homeless out on the streets and we have to walk around them….” calling it a “physical statement that we failed on a major social policy issue: the right to decent housing.”
TDRC’s report points out
that Mayor Giuliani generated record level of homelessness in NYC.
In office for most of the 1990s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani created new
laws that targeted the homeless and he ordered the police to aggressively
enforce existing and new laws. The result: By 2002, there were more homeless
in New York City than ever before in the city’s history. There were an
average of 33,581 women, men and children in New York shelters every night,
plus thousands more in city jails and hospitals. The financial cost was
staggering: Almost $1 billion in fiscal 2001.
In a homeless disaster why bandaids instead of a blueprint!
The “From the Street into Homes” report includes monies for 8 new outreach workers and plans to “coax” the homeless inside. The bylaw which will “sweep” homeless people off the civic square was amended, at the last minute, to be extended to all former municipal civic buildings (such as the old City Halls of the former Metro). The report only re-allocates existing resources and commits housing dollars that were first promised in 2000.
This report sadly is not a blueprint to end homelessness.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took over from Mayor Giuliani in 2002, is no “bleeding heart liberal”, he is a tough Republican, who knows a costly failure when he sees it. Mayor Bloomberg said that subsidized housing would be his solution to homelessness. He announced plans for 65,000 new subsidized homes by 2008. In 2003 (his first year in office), he had funded 10,200 new subsidized homes. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg was on track to fund 16,000 subsidized homes. This is a blueprint to end homelessness.
Toronto would need 3,500 new homes annually to match NYC: New York City has a population of 7.3 million. Toronto has about 2.4 million residents. On a per capita basis, Toronto would need to fund 21,500 new homes over six years (3,500 new homes annually) to match New York’s initiative.
In the meantime, while we wait for a national housing programme, a serious Toronto blueprint to alleviate and end homelessness would include plans to:
Witnessing and influencing a public policy debate such as this necessitates free speech and the allocation of sufficient resources to do that work. In the last few weeks, I witnessed dozens of organizations and individuals scrape together their response to this report, especially difficult given its public release, in effect two working days before committee hearings. Some sectors were surprisingly silent. Some reported they were just too swamped in their direct service work to participate. Others told me they were not allowed to participate in this process by Boards of Directors – many of whom have been frightened by funding cuts since the Mike Harris years of intimidation.
When we entered City Hall on Feb. 2 we only had one vote against the by-law, by the time Council voted we had 8 (Councillors Augimieri, Fletcher, Ford, Hall, Kelly, Mihevc, Thompson & Walker). Although not enough votes, it showed that nothing is ever a done deal. It’s still not a done deal, groups are exploring legal options.
If you live or work in Toronto please consider making your feelings known to your local City Councillor and the Mayor. (Click here for information on how to reach your local councillor.)
I’m hoping the Feb. 23 federal budget will have lots of good news for me to report to you next month.
they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a
-Pastor Martin Niemoller
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