These days you should be so lucky as to be called a lazy bum if you're homeless. What's more fashionable, it seems, is to paint the poor as criminals. I couldn't help thinking this last Tuesday (September 3) at the emergency venting session called by Kyle Rae over the future of Cawthra Park in the heart of the gay village. Locals are upset by the increase of public drinking and drug deals in the park, once beloved as a gay meeting place.
Between May 1 and August 29, police received 295 radio calls from the area around the park and a disproportionate 95 calls actually from the park. Reasons for calls ranged from drunk people falling off park benches - less likely now that separations have been inserted in the benches to discourage weary folk from catching a snooze - to actual criminal activity.
Parks are for everyone, of course. And residents have a right to be free of harassment on their recreation grounds. But the lack of distinctions being made at the 519 Church meeting is astonishing.
For example, Claire, owner of the village's Ladybug Florist, is emotional as she reports that a colleague, the unnamed owner of Peter Pan Restaurant, was recently beaten by thugs on his own business premises. She fears this could happen to her. But what she says next is shocking. To thunderous applause, she calls on the crowd not to tolerate or give money to panhandlers.
"I will do my part in my store, too," she says. "I will not give them water. I will not let them use the phones. Please, do not give them money."
Despite all the serious concerns, the conversation keeps coming back, inexplicably, to "them." Not the drug dealers, the rapists, the gay-bashers, the thugs. Instead, the homeless.
A young man named Guy announces, "I don't like going through this park and having to see people sleeping there with their shoes off. It shows disrespect for the community. However, if somebody is sleeping in the park and they look decent, leave them alone."
The police, for their part, urge people to give their money to charity rather than "contributing to the crack cocaine problem or addiction" by giving spare change, that tiniest of human gestures. Another man, Pierre, asks the police if they could arrest people for such crimes as loitering (they can under some circumstances) and suspicious handshaking in public parks (they can't).
In fact, "panhandling, disorderly conduct is our biggest problem in Toronto," Inspector Tony Crawford of 52 Division tells the gathering. That's right, folks. Not gangs, not drugs, not murders, not decimation of safety-inducing social programs, not smog, and certainly not poverty. (One officer, David Simpson, does note that the officers on the new Yonge-Church detail understand that the issues are not about either sex or sleeping in the park.)
At points during the meeting, I feel that a modest proposal to feed the homeless to the hungry would not be out of place. Robin Silverman, who runs the decades-old homeless program at 519, is an embattled voice of reason.
"The problems we are having have come along because we've had years of problems with social programs in this country," she says when she gets her turn at the mike. "The solution here is not less services, it's more services."
Silverman has worked with street kids in Brazil and draws comparisons to the attitude in this room. "At some point, before they started shooting the homeless, I'm sure they had community meetings like this."
She implores area residents to come to her Sunday homeless program and get to know the homeless people she serves.
It's not like people don't recognize a deeper, systemic problem. Police at 52 Division are run ragged doing everything from arresting drug dealers and responding to a rise in gay-bashing incidents to waking up homeless people in the wee hours of the morning. Besides, police agree with speakers including Councillor Kyle Rae that cleaning up an area "just moves problems to another park.'
How about getting back to basics? Tolerance wasn't always a dirty word in the village, especially in Cawthra Park, birthplace of Toronto's Pride. And safety doesn't come from moving poor people from one location or hostel to the next.