Just after 4 am last friday a gusty breeze sweeps low enough on Richmond to push the usual debris of clubland's debauchery east past Sugar, Yuk Yuk's and Money. On the sidewalk, a thin guy with a ZZ Top-length grey beard munches hungrily on a grimy piece of white bread, all his possessions hanging from the handlebars of the old bike between his legs. His name is Greg. He is smart, funny and sad. On weekends, Greg and I work just paces apart. I bounce, he begs.
That night he and I talk about Tent City, not because he was turfed from that shantytown when it was shut down just over two years ago, but because he wasn't. Had he been one of the lucky 112 squatters Home Depot hoofed off its lot, chances are he'd be asleep in his own bed now after a home-cooked meal and a soothing warm shower.
In fact, 88 per cent of those lucky enough to be evicted under the glare of TV cameras still have a home, compliments of the city's Emergency Housing Pilot Project (EHPP), a provincially backed fund that tops up social benefits so that recipients can afford to pay rent.
As 5,000 to 6,000 homeless people await winter on city sidewalks, perhaps it's time to ask the question: why can't the same program that got digs for Tent City folks shell out for everyone on the street? And isn't this the rational option when, by the city's own calculation, it costs $16,156 annually to fund a shelter-dweller but only $11,631 to supplement his or her private rent?
To preserve what privacy he has, Greg asks me not to publish his surname, but he OKs the printing of this telling quote from our chat: "It's not fair that the Tent City people got housing right away. The politicians talk bullshit: 'We're going to help the homeless. We're going to help the homeless,' but only when the media's looking. It's all appearance."
Greg, who's been homeless since before the Tent City clearance, feels no resentment toward the EHPP beneficiaries - just envy. And he isn't the first to bring up this question of fairness regarding the selection of who gets housing. In the GTA, 66,000 families are currently waiting for affordable housing on what's called the centralized waiting list. Many of them have also voiced their displeasure about the EHPP's exclusivity.
Although some needy families are homeless, most live in inadequate or overcrowded housing. According to Corinne De Almeida, a spokesperson for Housing Connections, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation offshoot that administers the rent supplement payments to the former Tent City denizens, only those who are victims of violence or terminally ill (two years to live) are fast-tracked up the centralized waiting list.
An additional city of Toronto proviso called the "one out of seven" rule stipulates that every seventh person to get government housing must be one of the following: homeless, a homeless "new Canadian," youth, homeless in a shelter or a member of a separated family (single parent) with a child in Children's Aid. "But because the number of people on the list who meet one of these criteria is more than one in seven, we don't like to announce the one-out-of-seven rule, so people don't get the impression that their wait times will be significantly shorter," says De Almeida. To date, the only other way to get fast-tracked for housing is to have lived at Tent City on September 24, 2002.
At the time, the TCHC reassured those on the centralized waiting list that Tent City's evictees weren't queue jumpers but part of a separate project. True, but those on the list don't give a damn about that; they just want a home. And the reality is that EHPP recipients got one ahead of them.
Some good news came this summer when the city announced that it had scraped up enough money to extend EHPP-style rent supplements to 200 more people, although no one seems to know when this will occur.
Councillor Olivia Chow (Trinity-Spadina) chairs the EHPP and is so impressed by its innovative rent supplement strategy of "subsidizing humans, not buildings" that she wants to see it implemented across Ontario. She recalls that "Tent City made us ask, 'Why can't we find these people a place to live in Toronto, where there are thousands of vacant apartments?'"
Instead of building government housing for the evicted, the EHPP helped them become tenants in apartments by topping up any shortage of Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program payments. It's a juicy offer for landlords when vacancy rates have hit a 30-year high.
Cathy Crowe, a street nurse from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, says the only criticism of the project she's heard is that it gives public funds to private companies. "This controversy is far outweighed by the desire to get these people off the street and out of tuberculosis- and bedbug-ridden shelters," she says. Over 32,000 people used shelters in 2002.
Sean Goetz-Gadon, the mayor's special housing adviser and EHPP mastermind, is pleased his innovations have managed to transform Tent City people into city people. But he cautions those who want to expand the system against seeing it as a panacea for the housing crisis.
"The private sector is a good source of space in the short term because (housing) can be implemented instantaneously instead of three to four years hence," he says. "But it's not reliable, because it's subject to market forces like inflation and mortgage rates." He wants a multi-pronged strategy that would include rent supplements, at least 20,000 public housing units and on-site support to help with mental health problems and addiction.
Tent City residents and their supporters who hung on to the last succeeded in embarrassing the city into action. Now municipal politicians and housing activists are so encouraged by the stability of former Tent City citizens that they want to panhandle Queen's Park for more cash. As Goetz-Gadon says, "There's no question we should be moving from the pilot project stage to larger projects."
As with EHPP, the funding for 200 flexible rent supplements comes from old money the city had previously acquired from the province through federal housing subsidies. In 1999 Ottawa transferred social housing to the province. That came with annual transfer payments in the hundreds of millions, plus an additional $50 million for unspecified housing needs, the source for EHPP-type rent top-ups.
Crowe points out that in 2003 Dalton McGuinty's Liberals promised $100 million for housing but, depending on whom you ask, have only spent between $1 million and $12 million.
The policy adviser to Minister of Community and Social Services Sandra Pupatello says Queen's Park has no immediate plans to transfer more rent supplement cash to Toronto. "We're very interested in the good work (the city's) doing and the impressive results of Tent City, but to my knowledge there's no movement at our level to increase funds for rent supplements at this time," says Gurpreet Malhotra.
According to housing expert and U of T prof David Hulchanski, in selecting candidates for housing there are no fair systems. "The sad reality is that it's like winning the lottery. Unfortunately, the need is huge and some must wait."
So as the mercury flirts with the freezing point, Greg bides his time to see if he has a place among this winter's 200 housing winners.