Community organizing. it's long been a progressive touchstone, and for many in the ranks of the squishy-hearted it no doubt summons up lovingly itemized agendas and long, intense sessions over vegan cookies and fair-trade coffee. And if you live in 1960s Yorkville (minus the vegan treats), then, sure, why not? But if you don't you might want to duck, because here comes another folding chair.
At a recent meeting organized by Action 4 Balanced Communities Downtown East at the Cabbagetown Youth Centre at Wellesley and Parliament, it becomes clear that the "community" isn't the only hotly contested concept.
Folks have been called here to discuss the expansion of a Sherbourne Street halfway house for paroled offenders operated by the Salvation Army. The first speaker, Gene Lara, was Toronto Centre-Rosedale's NDP candidate in the last provincial election. I'm not sure if I should be impressed or just confused that an NDP member is speaking out against the opening of a social service.
"When I heard federal criminals will be housed three houses away from the school, I trembled," she says, referring to a Catholic school under construction at a site a stone's throw from the group home, and to concerns about sexual offenders living within swooping distance of schoolchildren.
Understandably, this strikes a chord among many in attendance, myself included. But Lara goes on, her cadence and volume building almost feverishly. Suddenly, there's a shout from the audience: "We need more services."
"I agree, we need more services," Lara responds. "But we already have enough." Um, sure. She lost the election, right? OK, good.
"Brothers and sisters, in other countries," she continues, now shouting hoarsely, "if you have a meeting like this, when you go outside, you are killed." Which countries kill people for organizing against social services?
Another speaker warns of "the uncontrolled introduction of services." She ends her comments with the simple point that "services can be spread out across the city, yet they're not," and reminds attendees that protocol requires consulting the community about projects such as these.
"The whole community," comes the glib reply from an OCAP member in the audience.
A Mississauga resident cites the United Way's Poverty By Postal Code study to point out that a disproportionate amount of Toronto's poverty affects the area in question.
The flare-up seems caught in the classic chicken-and-egg dilemma -- what came first, streets full of poor people needing services or a system of services that lured more of the needy into the area? Group home opponents believe the egg came first, from which a malnourished chicken hatched. No matter how you look at it, shouldn't services be welcome in a neighbourhood where there are folk who need them? Why would anyone originally have placed a halfway house or shelter in a part of the city where no one needed it?
Whatever the case, the shelters are being used. And whatever the cause, homeowners agree that their area is losing its financial base. "De-investment follows decline," says the Mississauga speaker, citing the loss of the Trebas Institute (which moved because of crime in the area).
A resident circulated a letter at the meeting describing a throat-slashing and a beating death in the area, accusing "vagrants' and calling Sherbourne and Dundas a "living hell.' Eva Curlanis-Bart, an A4BCDE member, echoes the concern over crime in a phone interview. "The rooming houses [in the area] require thousands of police interventions a year. The sirens are wailing non-stop."
She doesn't believe this creates a conducive environment for rehabilitation. "The very reason for creating group houses is to reintegrate people. Therefore, they have to be located in a community that is balanced."
Supporters of the Sally Ann's plan, however, feel that it would actually lower crime in the area. "I've received dozens of complaints about the Leonard Hotel," says ward councillor Kyle Rae of the hotel the Salvation Army will be buying for the halfway house. "I haven't received a single complaint about the Salvation Army's halfway house since I was elected in 1991."
Art Rasmusson, who runs the Sally Ann's current group home, insists that policy prevents anyone involved in crimes against children from living there, and that police and community are involved in deciding on each potential resident. "We are really strict about who goes in there," he says, also noting that if people are caught with THC in their system, they go back to jail. That makes me a bit uncomfortable, but Rasmusson hopes wary residents will be reassured.
Opponents cite bylaws stating that no group home can be within 250 metres of another group home. I ask Curlanis-Bart how many of these places there are in the area.
"There are hundreds." Hundreds?
"If you look at Sherbourne, there are shelters, residential care facilities," she says, referring to group homes for the elderly and the mentally ill.
Lumping together the elderly, the mentally ill and federal offenders seems somewhat dubious, but Curlanis-Bart does so repeatedly. These are what she calls "problem populations," which also include people living in homes for battered women, those who frequent the native community clinic and "HIV addicted" people (her words, not mine).
"What kind of community are we talking about?" Well, it's not the Bridle Path. I'm going to have to guess it's a city. But the area in question is missing some typical city characteristics. "Sherbourne Street doesn't have any shops. It doesn't have the economic mix that is characteristic of a community," she says. "There isn't one retail facility on that street."
To be fair, there is one: the Coffee Time. She doesn't believe it counts, since drug dealers hang out there. Curlanis-Bart ultimately feels that the lack of shops will further reduce community in the area, leading to a downward spiral. Considering the downward spiral that turned the A4BCDE meeting into a shouting match - complete with exclamations like "This is why we don't want you people here!" - we may actually have hit bottom.