Where are the homeless to go?

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In winter, there is always a sudden deluge of media stories about the homeless.

They are a familiar sight in Toronto, moving up and down the streets likedisobedient pieces of newspaper, draping themselves over subway grates tokeep warm, begging for change.

Toronto's homeless haunt the city's landscape, to the regret of some andthe disgust of others. While some passersby offer a dollar or two, others offerarrogant advice like “get a job.” Most people walk by, oblivious to what'son their periphery until their stories hit the news.

You see, a strange thing happens every winter in Toronto: there is alwaysa sudden deluge of media stories about the homeless. Toronto citizens,corporations, charities and governments who usually don't give a damn whenthe weather is warm, become suddenly very concerned for their well being.

Stories of frozen bodies found on the streets, tuberculosis outbreaks in theshelters encourage an upswell of charity and support like heat from asewer grate. Like everything thing else that involves politics, everyonehas an opinion and suggestions about how — and who — can solve the problem.

Mayor David Miller (who championed the plan) andToronto City Council's newest strategy to solve Toronto's homeless -- housing crisis is a report titled: “From the Streets into Homes: A Strategy toAssist Homeless Persons Find Permanent Housing” which takes up 48pages in a larger Policy and Finance report.

The plan was passed by city council February 2, 2005, in a vote of 28/9.

Miller's plan is an $18.4 million “commitment to end streethomelessness,” through a four-tiered approach, including increasing streetoutreach, building more affordable housing, lobbying the provincial andfederal governments for more funding and support, and the mostcontroversial, banning people from sleeping in Nathan Phillip's Square, onthe doorstep of City Hall.

According to its supporters, its main thrust is its commitment to buildaffordable housing: “City Council supports an achievable target of 1,000new affordable housing units in the City of Toronto and urges the federaland provincial governments to reach an agreement enabling the AffordableHousing Program (1,000 units a year) to proceed without delay.”

While housing activists were quick to point out that 1,000 units wasn'tnearly enough to house the more than 25,000 people without a fixed address,they did agree it is a start. The friendly encouragement stopped there,though, as activists were firmly against the ban against sleeping inNathan Phillip's Square, where the hard core homeless camp out yeararound. Because of the Safe Streets Act enacted in Toronto in 2000, peopleare no longer able to tent in public parks, as well.

Activists and councillors opposed to the ban feared that banning peoplefrom sleeping at Nathan Phillip's Square would further isolate them fromsociety and outreach workers, making them more susceptible to violenceand social marginalization.

At an angry demonstration against the plan which stormed city councilchambers on the day before, John Clarke from the Ontario CoalitionAgainst Poverty (OCAP), an anti-poverty group active year round, shouted tocouncillors, “you're sending a green light to every cop, every vigilanteout there that it's open season on the homeless.”

Kevin Clark of Toronto, in an angry rant, said, “they (city council)are trying to ban the homeless like they're trying to ban pit bulls, butthey can't, because we're not animals.”

The Miller camp contended that the sleeping ban was meant to address theissue of public space access on Toronto's public property, noting thatpublic space shouldn't become anyone's private space when they camp out.They also stated that individuals would be removed from the squareonly as a last resort after outreach workers had exhausted all otheroptions.

Opponents of the plan heckled Miller, calling him a “social reformpretender,” a “lackey to developers” and referred to the plan as an act ofsocial cleansing.

“This informal practice of permitting sleeping in the square has notresulted in the perception that the city supports this activity. It isrecommended that the practice of permitting sleeping in the square bediscontinued by assisting homeless persons there to access alternativeaccommodations,” the report read.

The first of many questions around the ban's implementation concerns whowould actually be responsible for the removal of citizens sleeping in thesquare. Miller insisted that city by-law officers would facilitate theremovals while opponents feared the task might be left to the police.

It also raises the question, where are the homeless to go? There is aserious lack of affordable housing within the city, and with the loomingrisk of another tuberculosis outbreak and overcrowded shelters with poor livingconditions, some feel there is no real, genuine alternative.

Colin, from Toronto, along with other demonstrators who attended theFebruary 1 demonstration, spoke of the dehumanizing experience of alwaysbeing told to “move along” by police, security guards and privatecitizens. They see the city is now doing much the same.

It is hoped that this plan will mean at least some of Toronto's homeless will beable to move into a home, along with the implementation of its otherstrategies before springtime when the housing issue will once again slipfrom people's minds.

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