We allowed rich to win the class war

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Probably the most overlooked story of the past two decades is the fact that there was a class war and the rich won.

By getting governments to cut taxes and slash social benefits, our financial élite has greatly enriched itself and worsened the fate of the poor. Inequality has reached a level not seen in this country for about a century, as Osgoode Hall tax professor Neil Brooks has noted.

The swollen ranks of homeless people — a throwback to the early days of capitalism before protest movements won social benefits — are a sharp reminder that this class war has many victims, including the weakest and most vulnerable.

It's hard to square the ugly reality of people living on our streets with any sort of good feeling about where our society is headed. Hence, the need to remove this ugliness from view.

This appears to be the underlying motivation behind Toronto's “Streets to Homes” program, which is modelled on the Bush administration's program to end homelessness in U.S. cities.

Bush chose Philip Mangano as his homeless czar to oversee a national program aimed at weaning the homeless off temporary shelter and food supports, and moving them into permanent housing.

That is a laudable goal. But, like other Bush initiatives, the stated goal isn't the whole story.

One clue that something is amiss is the fact that, at the same time that it's ostensibly working to end homelessness, the Bush administration has made deep cuts to federal housing and support programs that would be key to any successful transition from homelessness to housing.

In reality, the much-vaunted success of cities like New York in eliminating homelessness is largely spin, according to Patrick Markee, an analyst with New York's Coalition for the Homeless. “This decade has been the worst since the Great Depression,” he told me.

But the Bush-Mangano model is seen as a source of inspiration in the planning departments of a number of Canadian cities, including Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Mangano himself has been warmly received in Toronto, where he's addressed influential corporate and municipal audiences and met with Mayor David Miller.

Following the U.S. model, Toronto's program emphasizes moving away from the shelter system and concentrating on housing the homeless. Again, this is the right goal. But there's been no new money to provide a support system that could make this program work.

And it's been accompanied by cutbacks in shelter beds, making the immediate plight of the homeless even more precarious. A survey of more than 300 homeless people by the group Street Health found that 39 per cent tried but were unable to get access to a shelter bed at some point last winter.

Indeed, Toronto's launch of its Streets to Homes program in February 2005 was coupled with punitive new rules that banned the homeless from sleeping in public squares, and halted programs that provided them with food and sleeping bags. The city has also become more aggressive in prosecuting panhandlers and loiterers.

So perhaps the class war has simply moved into a new phase. Having cut back the minimal supports we once provided to the most marginal members of society, we're now concentrating on moving them physically out of sight, and criminalizing the plight we've reduced them to.

Nothing spoils a good feast more than a crowd of unwashed beggars loitering within view.

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