While there were some useful measures in David Miller's plan to help the homeless, I can't help wondering whether the ban against sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square is merely sugar-coating an effort to keep public spaces clean and sterilized for billboard and videotron advertisers.
Forcing street people into shelters or banning them from public places is surely a clear violation of human rights - and glaringly hypocritical to boot. The same public officials who allow advertising to blight our common spaces and developers to clear entire forests to build deadly subdivisions, who gloat over hideous mega-buildings commissioned from pompous architects, cannot stand the sight of a shantytown half a block long and think homeless people under blankets are eyesores that might keep the tourists away.
Being homeless is undignified, unhealthy and very often dangerous, but as long as some folks prefer the outdoors to shelters, it's the city's job to make the streets more accommodating to them, not less.
Not only should the homeless, some of whom have mental health issues, be allowed to sleep in public spaces, but the city should also provide them with amenities such as tents, blankets and electric outlets for heating devices and reading lights. (Yes, there are bookish homeless people.)
These could be collected and stored nearby during the day. Allowing the homeless to bed down in the square makes the job of outreach workers, who don't have to hunt them down under the Gardiner's pillars, much easier. Square dwellers could be easily serviced and freed from the violence that often haunts the lonely street person.
Another urgent need, perpetually ignored by the city, is access to subsidized mailboxes, a phone-call answering service and even e-mail accounts. Lack of these amenities, according to research, prevents about 40 per cent of the homeless from finding jobs. Institutions should be fined if they refuse to provide jobs or services to homeless people who can provide a city-sponsored address and phone number.
Fear of the streets is a unique feature of our cities. But during the great blackout, many carried their private activities outside, putting up tents in parks and sitting on the patios of restaurants till the wee hours. For one magical night, the entire downtown became one big living room. People played cards on sidewalks, drank warm beer and met strangers. That was the only night that the homeless did not feel alone.
If we can take that attitude toward our public spaces, we are capable of much more empathy. A person wrapped in a blanket who doesn't want to move has just as legitimate a claim on public space as someone wrapped in a ton of metal called an SUV, taking up more space and spewing gasses into the air.
Maybe we should have a "sleepathon" to raise money for shelters and blankets. One big public pyjama party. At least we could cover the ugly grey floor of Dundas Square with colourful blankets.