John Tory’s failure of leadership on homelessness is a shame

If you were looking for evidence why Toronto continues to have a growing affordable housing and homelessness problem, you need look no further than this week’s council meeting. It was an eye-opener, all right. 

Mayor John Tory has tried to appear sympathetic to the cause of the unhoused – when he’s not, that is, pointing out how the city has been handcuffed to deal with the problem by lack of financial and other supports from other orders of government. Fair enough.

But actions speak louder than words, and it’s getting harder to believe the mayor when his allies on council are being dispatched to provide cover and do the mayor’s dirty work on the file, beginning with the mayor’s first deputy, Denzil Minnan-Wong. 

The last time Minnan-Wong made headlines on homelessness, it was to rail against a city plan to open more public washrooms in parks. (He claimed the move would attract more unhoused people and lead to encampments in parks.) At last week’s council meeting, Minnan-Wong chose renters and the working poor to shit on (figuratively speaking) with a dissertation on “homeowners’ rights” during a debate on a motion to implement a city-wide policy to legalize rooming houses. Predictably, it was shameful. Minnan-Wong’s sole function on council seems to be to run interference for Tory so that the mayor doesn’t have to look like the bad guy.

Rooming houses are already legal in the former city of Toronto, Etobicoke and East York, but not in Scarborough, North York and York. The city completed a report in 2015 outlining the reasons for implementing a city-wide policy. There are many, including the fact rooming houses are among the most affordable accommodation still available for many in an increasingly out-of-whack real estate market. There’s also the need to regulate the estimated 1,000 rooming houses already operating illegally in the city. 

But council decided to kick the issue down the road (again) to sometime in 2022. Tory voted in favour of the deferral (the item had already been deferred in July) despite a decade of policy work on the file and publicly expressing support for the idea. 

Minnan-Wong celebrated the decision as a “victory for the suburbs” in a tweet, which thanked the mayor and was then later deleted. Perhaps the mayor’s office got to him. It’s bad form, after all, to appear to be gloating when you’re supposed to be the mayor’s point person on council. That kind of behaviour is par for the course for Minnan-Wong.

But for Tory there’s an election to think about next fall, and for many council observers his failure of leadership on the homelessness file is becoming a rallying cry for change. 

Indeed, the mayor’s minions weren’t done covering up the administration’s inaction after Minnan-Wong’s histrionics.

Enter council speaker and staunch Tory ally Frances Nunziata, who launched a pre-emptive procedural strike to blunt an effort by councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to get more details on city expenditures and decision-making associated with this summer’s clearing of park encampments. 

The city spent some $2 million clearing encampments and performing associated remedial work at Lamport Stadium, Trinity Bellwoods Park and Alexandra Park. Everyone remembers the show of force of police on horseback and in riot gear. It was deplorable. It made international headlines.

Wong-Tam submitted an administrative inquiry – a request of the city manager, Chris Murray, for a detailed accounting – seeking information on who with the city authorized the clearings and the reasons for the large police presence, among other questions.

Turns out the city manager’s office was spearheading the effort, according to Murray. What direct role the mayor’s office played remains unclear, although it’s difficult to imagine the mayor was completely removed from the decision-making process given that Tory sits on the Police Services Board. Nunziata also sits on the Board. In fact, she’s Tory’s handpicked deputy chair.

But Wong-Tam’s bid to delve deeper into questions still lingering from that episode – including, city expenditures associated with hotel shelters set up to house park residents and city efforts to find permanent housing for them – was upended by Nunziata. The speaker moved a motion to “receive” the city manager’s responses before Wong-Tam could table a motion to have the matter referred to the mayor’s executive committee. The latter would have allowed further submissions from the public and questions by councillors. No dice.

Wong-Tam would eventually get a chance to table her motion, but it would be defeated 7-16. Wong-Tam says the mayor and his allies were trying to “bury” the issue. Certainly, there is much to unpack about whether city efforts are headed in the right direction.

According to the city manager’s report, 64 people living in the three encampments have been offered shelter in hotels since January. Of those, 46 accepted, but only 27 individuals, a little more than half, remain housed in the hotels as of September 23. Some 1,400 unhoused people have accepted referrals to hotel shelters since the start of the pandemic but only eight per cent have been moved into permanent housing.

Wong-Tam says she’s concerned about the number in hotel shelters returning to the streets and in some cases back in parks. 

“I find them in laneways and in stairwells,” she tells NOW.

She offers that the $220 being spent by the city per night per room for hotel shelters would be better spent on rent subsidies. While hotel shelters provided a quick fix for an overcrowded shelter system during the early months of the pandemic, the leases are expiring in April. 

What started as a temporary solution is looking more like an alternative to permanent housing for the city, with council voting at this week’s meeting to purchase outright two hotels to add to the two already purchased earlier this year to provide some 334 spaces for unhoused people.

The city has access to funds as part of the federal government’s Rapid Housing Initiative and has unlocked some land of its own and space in residential buildings to build permanent housing.

The city also has the power to expropriate private land, which housing advocates have been calling for to build more permanent housing, but Tory is reluctant to take that route. Meanwhile, the crisis continues.

“People can’t build a life in 100-square-foot [hotel] units,” Wong-Tam says. 


Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content