Not in my ward

Burbs sink new bylaw aimed at sheltering city's homeless

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Things are so out of whack here-abouts that people fighting the proliferation of homeless shelters in their inner-city neighbourhoods have taken sides with suburbanites scheming to make sure “downtown” is where all the hostels stay.Whoever coined the phrase about politics and strange bedfellows must have been thinking about this bunch.

A little over a week ago it actually seemed possible to have a municipal bylaw that would put roofs over the heads of the burgeoning downtrodden in places like Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York with as much ease as it’s been done in the old city of Toronto for years.

But then along came a few beleaguered folk from Riverdale and the east downtown to put the kibosh on this attempted tryst with enlightened legislation so long overdue. Alas, these paranoid urban naysayers may have screwed themselves royally in the process. They became a focal point in a city council debate last week that featured politicians from hinterland wards so opposed to sheltering even a few homeless citizens in their midst that they warned of public lynchings if it is ever allowed to happen.

“This is an insult to my constituents to even think about having a homeless shelter in their ward,” councillor Rob Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) sputtered in rage. Better to put a toxic dump in their backyards than make it possible for a less fortunate member of the human race to escape the wet and cold somewhere down the street.

“This is a bylaw opening the door to make every ward have a shelter,” Ford screeched in red-faced terror, undoubtedly causing some of his colleagues to wonder if they were up to snuff on the cardiac aspects of CPR.

Councillors like Kyle Rae and Pam McConnell — whose two Toronto-Rosedale wards (27 and 28 respectively) are the site of 22 homeless shelters — could argue until they were blue in the face about the necessity of relieving the pressure on facilities there.

But all that NIMBYists like Ford and councillor Paul Sutherland (Ward 33, Don Valley East) had to do was cast an occasional sideways glance at the public gallery, where maybe 10 or 11 objectors from the George Street and Broadview Avenue environs had made themselves conspicuous.

Those glances (from Ford, Sutherland and many of the other 25 ward reps who voted to send the new shelter bylaw to Mayor Mel Lastman’s office for more study and “consultation’) said as much as all their speeches. The unspoken message to Rae, McConnell and their 14 sympathizers was this: “Don’t dare ask us to share the shame of homelessness when your own constituents are here to protest changes to the rules.”

And so it was that a well-prepared bylaw that Brad Duguid, chair of council’s community services committee, was convinced would make it through the City Hall gauntlet with relative ease was, in fact, dispatched to the political back burner. Unfortunately, Duguid was likely counting on the mayor to show some leadership on the issue. After all, it was Lastman who enlisted former United Way boss and now Conference Board of Canada president Anne Golden to lead a task force that made numerous recommendations on how the city should tackle the homeless crisis.

These days, many councillors are suggesting the Golden task force was little more than an expensive political ploy intended to mitigate the damage Lastman did to himself during the 1997 megacity mayoralty campaign when he claimed homelessness didn’t exist in his former fiefdom of North York. When a bag lady turned up dead in the washroom of a Lawrence Avenue gas bar that very night, Lastman looked very much the fool.

Now even some of the mayor’s staunchest apologists are questioning whether Lastman’s interest in the issue was ever more than a superficial ploy to get some positive press.

The mayor had an opportunity to quell such rumblings when the new shelter bylaw came under assault. But Lastman said nothing while his aides negotiated with the opposition over the wording of motions to delay any changes to the status quo — which just pertains to the old city of Toronto — while some wise guy tries to cook up a way to make it thus in perpetuity.

Rae, for one was astounded by the mayor’s complicity in the plot to sidetrack the bylaw.

“All the work that (the mayor’s) done in the past five years? All that work was shoved aside for Paul Sutherland’s personal satisfaction,” Rae said. He also wondered aloud whether Lastman might be trying to provide Sutherland with a plank for a mayoralty platform in the not-too-distant future.

Sources say senior staff who developed the new shelter regulations are outraged that they’re being asked to propose changes to a bylaw that’s been carefully drafted both to spread the shelter network and maintain the checks and balances inherent in community consultation.

“This thing is at the point where making any significant changes to the bylaw will mean starting the drafting process all over again,” said one insider. “It’s high time council made a political decision and took the trouble to defend it.” That’s what real leadership is supposedly all about.

Duguid, who shepherded the bylaw through the critical committee process, has been limiting his public criticism of Lastman to various expressions of disappointment. But privately the ambitious young councillor is said to be livid.

Lastman can ill afford to lose many more friends in the council chamber. Some councillors suggest his public silence during the shelter debate is just another indication that he no longer has the stomach for the political fray.

Rae says he can’t understand what Lastman’s playing at. But neither does he comprehend the position some of his own constituents took in opposition to the bylaw. “They’re blinkered. They’re so bloody-minded about the hostels in their own neighborhoods, they can’t see this bylaw will ensure hostels are no longer concentrated in their neighbourhood,” he said.

Maybe by the time the matter gets back to council, they’ll have come to that conclusion.

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