Joe Mihevc plots war on poverty

Council’s new advocate for the poor says the city has to have the courage to be honest with the public: tackling poverty is going to cost money

Two years into Mayor John Tory’s TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy, a 20-year “opportunities for all” plan passed by council in November 2015, newly minted poverty reduction advocate Joe Mihevc admits that all the city’s indicators “are going in the wrong direction.”

The strategy focuses on six key areas: housing stability, service access, transit equity, food access, quality jobs and livable incomes, and systemic change. But Mihevc says we’re becoming a more polarized society of haves and have-nots, “and it’s showing up in very bad data.” For example, the fact that one in eight citizens doesn’t have enough to eat. Tory’s 2017 budget called for a 2.6 per cent cut in spending across all departments and reduced budgets for an already underfunded social services infrastructure.

In early October, Tory called on the long-time Ward 21 councillor to take over the file from late councillor Pam McConnell. Here are some highlights from our recent interview:

On who’s to blame for the current crisis

“It took three generations of misdirected action and inaction to get us into the mess we’re in,” says Mihevc. But he isn’t blaming just government. He says civic institutions, businesses and non-governmental players have been making poor decisions, “not conscious of the social inequalities and poverty that is out there.” 

On the perception that people who are suffering financially don’t want to work  

“Under the [Rob] Ford administration when we did the consultation on poverty reduction, the first thing most people said to us is that they want jobs. When I’m knocking on doors trying to get a vote and see kids playing in the apartment, I just know they’re latchkey kids and usually mom is working for 12 bucks an hour and has three jobs.”

On what passes for a livable wage in Toronto

“If the livable wage is going to be defined as $12,000 a year, then shit, that’s not going to cut it for a family with kids to live a minimally decent life.” 

On the “inhuman” affordable housing crisis

“We obviously need more affordable housing when you have to wait 12 years to get an affordable unit. It’s inhuman for someone to have to wait that long. That’s why you see two families living in an apartment. You’re homeless or you’re marginally housed, meaning you’re couch surfing or you’re living in a semi-furnished room because that’s the only thing you can afford. People that fall between the cracks are those earning minimum wage, the working poor. We should be building as much affordable housing as possible and repairing the units that we have.” 

On the greater role social service agencies could play on housing

“If you’re a faith community and you have some extra land in your parking lot, we want that land to turn into affordable housing. That’s what used to happen 35 years ago. It’s very hard, though, for us to go to a faith community and say, ‘Please give us your surplus land for affordable housing,’ if we don’t do that as a city or, if the province doesn’t put in to pay for repairs to social housing.”

On how he hopes to turn his advocacy role into “walking the talk” on poverty

“We have to have the honesty and the courage to tell Torontonians that in the short term poverty reduction is going to cost money. In the long term, what you’re buying is a better city and more social peace, which results in fewer visits to emergency by homeless folks and less money spent on jails and the justice system, which is costing us a fortune. If you invest in social equity up front, there’s not just a happiness index payoff, there’s an economic payoff for society.”

On band-aid solutions to the emergency in our shelter system

“What we identified several years ago is that drop-in centres are one of the best investments we can make. That’s where you can identify folks earlier and get them the help they need to get re-housed.”

Mihevc turns the pages of a planning report on his desk, Winter Ready, put out by Toronto Shelter, Support and Housing Administration at the end of October. The plan includes a 30 per cent increase in nightly shelter capacity by December 31 to 5,651 spaces. Two 24-hour year-round drop ins for women are also planned and 35 overnight mats will be added to the Adelaide Street drop-in representing a 43 per cent capacity increase.

On the pressure to turn things around

“Politics created this mess and politics is going to get us out of this mess.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed. | @nowtoronto

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