Has Mayor David Miller taken a right turn on the homelessness issue?
The mayor says no, but his support for a city staff report that would put an end to people sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square and other public places has some social justice advocates expressing serious concerns about Miller's motives.
"We were totally blown away," says street nurse Cathy Crowe, a leading spokesperson for Toronto's homeless. "We didn't see it coming."
Crowe maintains that the report, entitled From The Street Into Homes: A Strategy To Assist Homeless Persons Find Permanent Housing, is a "reactive one to the pressures of right-wing councillors and Toronto Sun rants that reached a frenzy last summer and fall."
Both Crowe and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee's Michael Shapcott spent Wednesday, January 19, at City Hall trying to convince council's policy and finance committee that the report is fatally flawed and will only create more problems for the thousands who can't find affordable housing in Canada's largest municipality.
"I don't think it's fully fleshed out," Crowe says of the strategy, which goes to council in February. "This was just written up internally. None of us were consulted - not officially anyway - and there are some things that just aren't going to work."
Co-authored by chief administrative officer Shirley Hoy, community and neighbourhood services commissioner Eric Gam, acting works and emergency services commissioner David Kaufman and city solicitor Anna Kinastowski, the 39-page document proposes spending $18.4 million on a series of initiatives. They include putting more outreach workers on the street, building 1,000 new affordable housing units annually (half of them for low-income households) and lobbying the province and feds for increased financial support.
But it's a planned bylaw that would ban "camping" in Nathan Phillips Square that has really raised the ire of those who work with the homeless.
Crowe is quick with a quote from Miller's 2003 mayoral campaign that stated, "Tough love with no housing options and no support is not a policy for the homeless." She fears the proposed crackdown on the square will spread elsewhere, giving police further justification to hassle the homeless sleeping in parks and ravines and under bridges.
But the mayor is just as quick to deny he's adopting a harsh right-wing approach to dealing with people who make their beds in the city's best-known gathering place. "This is a public space, and every single resident of Toronto, whether they're homeless or have a home, is entitled to be in a public space," Miller argues. "But when it's a public space like Nathan Phillips Square, it shouldn't become a private space for people. That's the distinction."
The mayor says critics of the strategy are putting too much emphasis on amendments to the bylaw seeking to regulate use of the expanse of concrete around 100 Queen West.
"You have to look at the plan as a whole," he advises. "What it does is change the focus of the city from ensuring that people can survive on the street to connecting them with ways to get into homes. We know this can be successful. It was successful with Tent City. It was successful under the Bathurst Street bridge this year."
Miller is adamant that the proposed bylaw will be used as a last resort and is not an effort to sweep the homeless from Nathan Phillips Square and into jail cells. The sleeping ban will be used as a last resort to convince people they have other options, he insists.
"There's no ability to arrest somebody for breaching a city bylaw," the chief magistrate says. "That's not illegal. Social workers will be speaking with people and working to connect them with the services they need to get into homes and off the street."
Responds Crowe, "I know that Mayor Miller means that in good faith, but we worry about something carved in stone. The trouble when you bring in a bylaw like this is that it relies on the promise of one good-hearted politician who's not there forever."
As for the $18.4 million to be spent on outreach workers and new affordable housing, that proposal certainly won't pass muster with Crowe and her cohorts from the TDRC. Among other things, they want the city to commit an additional $14.2 million for new subsidized housing and to set a target of 3,000 affordable new homes in the program's first year. They'd also like some of the outreach budget directed to community agencies that are already in the field instead of spending it all to hire more city staff.
Councillor Olivia Chow, chair of council's community services committee, agrees the city has to do more for the homeless. But until the senior levels of government come through with more money for affordable housing, the latest City Hall strategy is one she can support. She's confident that homeless advocates like Crowe will come to see its merits as well. As for their contention that David Miller has taken a turn to the right, Chow says: "On that we'll agree to disagree."
Councillor Pam McConnell, too, agrees with Miller's plan. "There has to be a carrot-and-stick approach, even if you don't use the stick. Otherwise, the carrot won't work."
Councillor Paula Fletcher sees it similarly. "I will support the proposal as long as it doesn't include simply removing people should they wish to be staying in one place." The ban, she says, is an "encouragement rather than a request - and that's a very Toronto way of doing things."