A fiscal and moral scandal is brewing at Toronto's City Hall. Thanks to the casework and policy brilliance of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the individual cases where people were being denied emergency monies for homelessness prevention have now been exposed as a result of systemic policies, to the tune of $18 million. That's $18 million dollars not spent on homelessness or to prevent it, but instead tucked away, amidst the worst homelessness and housing emergency in my memory. It's a disgrace given the conditions of overcrowded shelters, escalating homeless deaths and at least 500 people who are forced to live outside, unable to access a shelter bed year round.
This week, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) released their report "Toronto Robs from the Poor: The Misuse of the Housing Stabilization Fund".
According to Yogi Acharya, one of the authors, "The city's Housing Stabilization Fund (HSF) is supposed to focus on preventing homelessness. It's a lifeline for many poor people who need the emergency money it provides to prevent evictions, replace furniture lost to bedbugs, pay utility arrears or rent deposits and relocate due to domestic violence, flooding or fire."
Like most cases of injustice or inequity, at the micro level the story was well known. Frontline nurses, doctors, social workers and housing workers knew the difficulties and red tape their clients faced to obtain the precious funds that can help them buy a new bed after a bedbug infestation, or to help a mom and kids move from a violent home situation, or for rent support during a time of crisis.
We've always had to beg for that money and I remember too well the case of my friend Laura Bardeau, named in the report, who, despite a proven need, was denied the funds. Laura fought like a mother bear for what her kids needed, including telling her personal story outside City Hall, which she told me she did to make a difference for others. After many months and with OCAP's help she finally received the emergency funds. It was clear from that experience that there was too much discretion given to caseworkers to deny her legal right to the allowance. OCAP dug deeper and their report, which reads like a forensic audit, exposes a systemic, multi-year pattern of negligence that has led to the withholding of monies from very, very poor people.
$18 million remains unspent that should have gone directly to homelessness prevention and housing allowances. I should add that in the ongoing absence of a national housing program, housing allowances are the only tool that can help an individual or family afford housing. Instead, the city squirrelled away the money and Mayor John Tory even admitted in his media scrum following the report's release that some of the monies are in general surplus or reserve funds, as he said "for when there is actual need."
Clearly, this represents an intentional holding back of emergency funds that in a city with such poverty and growing homelessness equates to a policy insult towards the most vulnerable. The report notes that there has been a reduction and even the elimination of the entitlements of disabled people and people with children. I call that intentional neglect. Both the city and provincial ombudsman should investigate.
City council must return the $18 million into homelessness programs including emergency shelter. In addition they must immediately create transparency, accountability and equity in the Housing Stabilization Fund.
Advocacy has many expressions but in my mind the most effective and successful is advocacy that springs from the issues of the individual. In this case there was Laura who was very brave to go public seeking help. Then there was OCAP that looked upstream to expose the systemic issues. The story is not over yet.
Photo: front cover of OCAP report