A lazy Saturday afternoon. A picnic in Allan Gardens. Friends nap under a tree. Soccer is played. Twenty-five constables ring the gathering like laconic and heavily armed butlers, while some attendees have what is probably their best meal in a few days.
The June 21 frolic organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty suggests we’ve become so regulated that the only way to know the law is to trip over it.
Every city park closes at midnight, for instance, ostensibly to protect us. When you made out in High Park after that party, you were breaking the law. Kinky. But given tight resources, the city was probably unable to get to you right away.
To ensure speedy service, try being homeless. Announcing your intent by plastering the city with posters including words like “takeover” could help as well.
Nine years after the original Allan Gardens “Safe Park,” which drew a hundred rough-?sleepers for three days, OCAP tried the strategy again, protesting the “grotesque oversupply of housing for the rich” and the “covert plot to drive the homeless from view,” according to the bills.
A city staffer later commented on how the announcements also hearkened back to OCAP propaganda from nine years ago – as if nothing had changed. So what has changed?
For the first time ever, the city has committed to ending street homelessness and begun to move resources in that direction. Most notably, it’s cobbled together something resembling a real housing strategy in the form of Streets To Homes.
Yet, underfunded as it is by senior governments, the city is left to take what housing it can from private landlords. Clients can end up in the sort of place they could justifiably call a city inspector on. Federal funding has recently been dispensed to programs intended to help people make the transition from the street, including employment training for street-?involved youth and temporary housing for expecting mothers.
But of the 73 new or rejuvenated programs that will receive federal Homeless Partnering Initiative money this year, just over a third, 28, are located in the loosely defined downtown core, lending credence to activists’ fears that poor people are slowly being moved out of the core.
Lists of affordable private market rentals, maintained by the Neighbourhood Information Post and Woodgreen Health, follow a similar pattern, full of locations on Keele, Ellesmere, Steeles, in Mississauga and Hamilton.
Not only have an estimated 340,000 meals a year disappeared with 312 cut shelter beds, but many charitable food banks downtown are in dire straits.
Of course, there are facts, and then there are interpretations. One might wonder, for instance, why OCAP doesn’t simply focus all pressure on the government with the money. Much blame must end up at Queen’s Park, where – as a picnic banner attested – social assistance rates have been held down for years, losing around 40 per cent of their spending power.
But by the same token, one might ask why the city has opted to insist that the homeless just get with the Streets To Homes program. Housing means little without adequate social assistance, making city services akin to the marshlands where the Don meets the lake: tasked with the considerable job of cleaning up the resulting toxicity, while facing constant pressure to be dredged up entirely.
Ultimately, one wonders why activists and local politicians couldn’t form a loose alliance on this issue. But that would likely necessitate, as a first step, a promise not to cut services. And perhaps OCAP could, I don’t know, call ahead when they want a meeting with the mayor.
But, then, perhaps the city should first stop using police as diplomats. At 11:58 pm on June 21, police moved to remove the burgeoning camp-out. No one was arrested.
The following night, University Settlement, which provides shelter on weekends, closed for summer renovations. On Monday, activists showed up at council, making the usual complaints about lost services. There was the usual lack of official response, the usual murmuring about sufficient shelter beds.
Christopher Rydder, who slept at the Settlement on weekends, couldn’t find a bed downtown. And he might not have taken one. “I’ve been stabbed in my sleep before,” he said. “I’ve woken up with concussions.”
Marvin Payne, outside City Hall, pointed across the square to the courthouse. “I slept there on Friday. Last night at Allan Gardens. Tonight I’m right back over there,” he said. “I’ve got a Streets To Homes appointment for Wednesday. But that means I’m outside tonight, I’m outside tomorrow.”
The people aren’t going away. Why are the beds? OCAP’s answer? A plot to drive the homeless out of downtown. An exciting response that gets a few inches in the papers. But like any conspiracy theory, it’s only partially true. The fact is, market forces are changing the landscape, and no one is equipped or sympathetic enough to do a damn thing about it.
At Allan Gardens, though, the poor finally got specially treatment – $15,000 worth, given a conservative estimate of police overtime salaries. That would provide over 200 people with a city shelter bed and meal, or one person with nearly two years’ worth of $700-a-month rent supplements.
Officially, this was just to maintain the law. But forgive me for being skeptical – and jealous of the special treatment. So this is my official announcement: I will take over the bench near the south end of the pit in Trinity Bellwoods on July 12. I will be there after midnight, and I may or may not bring a card table.
I assume officers will arrive shortly thereafter to protect me.