The archetypal city hall has always been a place where politics and life meet. By the time you reach the provincial level, the system no longer serves the people. People are serving the system, like the little dolls they appear to be from way up in the public gallery at Queen's Park.
But at a city hall, power is still accessible. You can shake its hand or barge into its office. You can get up close and smell its deodorant. You can see that decisions are made by people like you, who can see that their decisions affect people like them.
But that's only if they're willing to look. At the municipal level, gross corruption can be rooted out. But soon into this January 19 Wednesday-morning meeting of the policy and finance committee, I realize that we have no official censure for the cardinal breach of protocol of refusing to look people in the eye and accept them as fully human.
The committee has met to mull over - or appear to mull over - a report from the chief administrative officer, city solicitor, commissioner of community and neighbourhood services, and acting commish of works. From The Street Into Homes: A Strategy To Assist Homeless Persons Find Permanent Housing makes a few good recommendations, like committing to 1,000 new housing units and hiring outreach workers.
But these proposals are tied to a new push to clear the homeless from Nathan Phillips Square. Once they're offered help, they can't stay.
It's unknown by whose standards the assistance will be measured. It could be "Stay here while we find you a nice apartment" or "Here are some pills and a box. Please leave now." The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and OCAP put out a call and people answered, filling the meeting. Standing room only.
The first deputation is already wrapping up as as I enter, and Councillor Howard Moscoe, who seems almost surprised, is responding. "The Lastman regime passed a bylaw saying you can't sleep in city parks," he states. "Where were you then?"
Councillor Jane Pitfield is next. "On a cold night," she says, "are members of the TDRC out encouraging people to go to shelters?"
"When the weather improves," she continues, "how do we prevent people from being back out on the street?"
The gallery has the answer, in the form of a choral shout: "Housing!"
"OK, but is every shelter bed being used?" asks Councillor Gay Cowbourne. Further questions are variations on this theme.
The TDRC's Beric German has a novel suggestion: "Try to think of the homeless as people like everyone else," he says, noting that there are many reasons why people don't want to go to shelters.
Being packed like sardines in infested rooms with dozens of others and closely regulated by security isn't everyone's ideal sleeping arrangement.
Giorgio Mammoliti, still mounting the learning curve, takes a stab at the riddle. "But what do we do about the ones who don't want to go into shelters?" Mob? "Housing!"
After nearly two hours of this, the public consultation begins to take on a less than consultative tone. I start to wonder if deputations are the wrong route. Maybe an English lesson is needed.
"Homeless" means just that - someone who is literally without a home. The reason protestors keep saying "housing" is because - and this is the tricky part - "house" is a synonym for "home." They mean the same thing.
Michael Shapcott, a founding member of the TDRC and now at U of T's Centre for Urban and Community Studies, tries his hand. "When [New York City] mayor Dinkins's regime invested in housing, homelessness decreased. When New York invested in policing, homelessness went up."
"This is the 21st century and we're talking about a bylaw to remove people from public space?" asks an incredulous Maurice Adongo of Street Health.
But the committee seems to think it's done quite enough of that. There's barely a pretense of listening now, and I start to wonder just how much city business is accomplished through clandestine muttering.
Those councillors still present - most have left or drift in and out - are chatting under their breath. Mayor David Miller is working the room. Moscoe is looking for something in his coffee mug. Councillor Doug Holyday appears to be sleeping. There's little indication that anyone is aware that deputations are still going on.
Near the end, deputant Tim Rourke takes the microphone. His speech is cynical but poetic. "They are useless eaters," he says, parodying bureaucratic views of the poor, "making profit for no one, taking money that would have been passed to the holders of the national debt."
Much of his speech is inaudible over the chatter, but his final statement rings clear. "They will become the ghosts of the murdered, and they will haunt you."
Exiting the building into the Plutonian wasteland of a late January evening, I wonder if the song coming over the rink-house speakers is a coincidence.
"I can't get no sat-is-fac-tion," bleats Mick Jagger. I wonder what kind of satisfaction future regimes will take from this bylaw when the pendulum swings back. And I wonder whether that swing started here today.