The front door of this apartment building on the downtown east side is unlocked. In the foyer, a breeze blows through a window propped up with a beer bottle and moves dust amid broken glass and plastic bags.
Down the hallway, we pass walls covered with half-finished thoughts in black marker, and at the end, a puddle of water. And more glass.
Street Health’s Gaetan Heroux turns to me. “So, are people housed, Mike?” In this building lives a tenant who is a beneficiary of the city’s Streets To Homes project.
When I visited the supported rooming house where Robert Maurice lived before dying on the street, I was amazed that anyone could share a room as small as his – but that place was clean, well maintained. This, well, my first thought is that if I were good at living on the street I might prefer that.
In the process of trying to get people to quit begging, the city resorts to some begging of its own. The Streets To Homes program helps people get an Ontario Disability Support Program pittance from the province, then finds private landlords who will take tenants off the streets in exchange for most, if not all, of those social assistance cheques.
Many buildings are in better condition than this one. Some are probably worse. So – are people housed? Confine yourself to the barest dictionary definition and it’s plausible.
And when council’s exec voted to expand Streets To Homes last week, adding $2 million this summer and $5 mil next year for a team of social workers and other supports for panhandlers, was it more plausible to say the mayor’s inner circle sold business lobbyists on servicing the homeless or bleeding heart liberals on a sweep of downtown streets?
I would say more the former. And this is the incredible thing: the softer and less costly approach proposed by Miller and supporters has pre-empted calls for outright police-focused cleansing. No small feat.
But those who work with street- involved people, including Heroux, fear it will come at the cost of other services. It could also create an increasingly rarefied downtown, off limits to anyone below a certain income line.
Since 2006, Streets To Homes has placed 1,750 people in apartments, and 1,540 have kept them so far. Those who remain housed have quit or greatly reduced their use of drugs and alcohol. Most stopped panhandling.
These results so pleased city managers that, in response to calls for a sweep of panhandlers in the core by reps of business improvement areas, they opted for a solution modelled on Streets To Homes.
This proved a novel way to divert righteous outrage into something resembling empathy. As the Downtown Yonge BIA’s James Robinson declared during a breathless deputation to the executive committee, “The city, social agencies and the business community have better educated ourselves. There is now a much better understanding of why people are panhandling, the concerns of our members and the various approaches to dealing with it.”
Allow me to comment that the business community is now mouthing the (unheard) arguments made for years by anti-poverty activists.
“Addressing issues of urban poverty make sense for everyone,” said Robinson.
Well, hey, thanks for showing up. We’ve already begun, but if you have a seat and listen quietly, you can catch up on what you’ve missed.
“No one’s against the idea that you want to give a lot of people support in getting housing,” says Beric German of Street Health and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to do it at the expense of other services.”
Phil Brown, the city’s manager of shelter, support and housing, says that’s not the plan. “There’s no redirection of funding from one agency to this initiative. This is, as we proposed it, new money to the system.”
But not from a new source. Half the money is from the federal Homeless Partnering Initiative. Many outreach programs receive HPI money, including those run by the United Way, 519 Church, Youthlink, NaMeRes and Street Health.
Brown says his department will be “sitting down with [providers] and talking about how we can best realign the services so they’re complementary.”
This network of services seems to include shelters, which, to the chagrin of activists, have lost 220 beds. “The shelter system is still a very important component,” says Brown, “but shelters have become people’s homes, people’s hospitals, and now that we’re able to house people, we have an opportunity to take [shelters] back to [their] original mandate, which was emergency shelter.”
Housing staff clearly want the system to break out of a vicious circle – but it’s hard to speak of limiting shelters to emergency use when we’re living in an emergency economy.
Of 1,750 people housed by Streets To Homes, 210 are back on the street. Of 408 panhandlers encountered during the BIA pilot project, 110 were already housed, and 41 were still begging at the end.
Many Streets To Homes apartments are outside the downtown. If a recession hits and more people end up homeless in the suburbs, will there be services – other than police – to respond?
As it stands, there’s reason to fear that the city is moving too fast. Why? “One option was to ramp this up for January 2009,” said Brown to the executive. “The business community was very keen to see this service ramped up for this particular summer.”
And in the end, some activists are put in the strange position of arguing against a housing program. “Of course we want to advocate for housing,” says Heroux. “We just want to advocate for housing we would actually live in.” Imagine that.