I killed a mouse last night. It was an accident. The mouse had fallen in my sink, too far for it to jump out. I picked it up, scaring it half to death.
The other half happened when I tried to place it in a metal container to transport it somewhere warm that wasn't my kitchen. It tried to flee the box, moving so fast that it took me a couple of seconds to realize that its neck was caught between the lid and the box. Ironically, the box was a live trap, designed to catch mice without hurting them.
Why am I telling you this? Because in many ways the mayor's recent Off The Streets Into Homes initiative is an attempt to build a better mousetrap.
I'm not comparing people without homes to rodents in my kitchen - only pointing to a parallel between how animal lovers treat house mice and how bleeding-heart centrists treat the homeless: you don't have to go to jail, but you can't stay here.
Recently, the city posted a notice at a shanty under the Spadina Bridge just north of Blue Jays Way, saying that on February 28 residents were to be evicted by works and emergency services. The poster instructed residents to remove all belongings by then and call the Street Help Line for assistance in finding shelter.
A few members of OCAP and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee went to observe the eviction, but the city never showed - and as you might have expected, the residents had already evacuated their home.
Katherine Chislett, director of outreach for housing and homelessness supports and initiatives, says two of the squatters were started on the "housing intake process" by outreach workers when the notice was first posted on February 23. Meanwhile, they're in Out of the Cold shelters.
"That site's been vacant for four months," says Chislett. "Those two people were new there within the past week."
But others think there were a lot more residents in the squat. OCAPer Kolin Davidson says he knows of eight people who've been living there for over a month. "And [a works department staffer] told me about six [residents] they know of who go to Sketch," he says, referring to the art program for street youth.
For the city, two out of eight ain't bad. "It looks pretty positive for them," says Chislett, referring to the housing process and Ontario Works welfare applications. But the city, more accustomed to bylaw enforcement than to outreach, may have as much understanding of homeless communities as humans do of mice.
Throwing on the lights, grabbing the first two bodies you see, destroying a nest and congratulating yourself on a job well done doesn't necessarily make sense when dealing with those who are hiding from you.
"[City workers] know these people are trying to escape them," Davidson says. "The only contact [the squatters] have had with the city is getting their supports cut off." Not to mention regular summer police sweeps of squeegee kids, more parks workers pushing the homeless out of the public greenery and Humber River squat that was bulldozed as recently as the first day of the debate over the Mayor's bylaw.
And the new breed of outreach - where the carrot is also the stick - may be impeding the efforts of established outreach workers. "This whole thing has cast a big shadow over the whole community," says Bob Rose, director of the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre.
"After the policy came in, activity began on Nathan Phillips Square within 24 hours. City staff were accompanied by security. They were saying, 'No, you don't have to leave right away, but you will soon,' and scaring people." He adds that those left have scattered, and that workers have already started approaching those sleeping in bus shelters at night.
Sheryl Lindsay, head of the Hostel Outreach Program for Women, had to pull some of her staff from their normal morning and night routes because she feared for their safety.
"We'd been working with [the people on the square] for quite a long time. They have mental health issues, and we had relationships with them. We hoped to get them housing at some point; they just weren't ready to go yet. And then city staff started coming out, accompanied by security guards. To [the homeless], we all suddenly appeared to be part of the same group. Some have made it clear that no outreach worker is welcome to talk to them any more. They say, 'You're working with those guys. '"
Both Rose and Lindsay believe the city needs to start consulting with the homeless community. "My sense is that things aren't very developed right now," says Rose. "We're calling for a moratorium [on the new policy] until there are some communication protocols, especially for people with mental health issues, and fully disclosed guidelines for city staff."
"We've been doing this for 17 years, and this has never happened," says Lindsay in exasperation. "There's a really negative connotation to 'outreach' now. We had to take a step back after all this and ask, 'How are we going to do our work?'"