The City of Toronto’s “Streets to Homes” program is a finalist for one oftwo awards that will be presented during the celebration of United Nations’World Habitat Day. These annual awards are given for “practical andinnovative solutions to current housing needs and problems.”
“Streets to Homes” is an initiative that focuses on placing people who are on thestreets in housing units, and is presented as a bold and vital step thatcan actually eliminate the destitution of poverty in Toronto.
“Streets to Homes is helping us to end street homelessness,” Toronto MayorDavid Miller has claimed. “It is making Toronto a more inclusive city, andthe world is taking notice. This recognition is a tribute to both Citystaff and our community partners, who have worked together tirelessly andseamlessly to help some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
As I write this article, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is preparingto take a delegation to the office of the Coroner of Ontario to challengethe death of yet another person whose homelessness had been “solved” by”Streets to Homes.” He was dumped in substandard accommodation in anoutlying part of the city without the supports that would enable him tosurvive. He perished in that setting.
There is a glaring contradiction between the “Streets to Homes” initiativeas it is presented by its boosters in Toronto City Hall and the quiet,hidden misery that plays out in the lives its “success stories.” Evenviewed, simply and immediately, as a program that has put some 1,500homeless people into housing units over three years, there is much that isflawed and even shameful about “Streets to Homes.” However, the biggerquestion and the greater outrage lies in its role in both concealing andserving an agenda of driving the poor and homeless from the centre of thecity in the interests of redevelopment. Before we can grasp thesignificance of ‘Streets to Homes’, we must first look at the essentialnature of this process and the ways in which it is being pushed forward.
Urban redevelopment and the poor
Redevelopment in Toronto is proceeding under conditions where the scale anddepths of poverty have already been increased by declines in real wages andthe removal of important elements of social provision. Unemploymentinsurance has been gutted, social assistance rates slashed and thegovernmental initiatives that once generated housing for low income peoplehave been scrapped. Some 70,000 people sit on waiting lists for socialhousing in this city, while the housing stock they wait to occupy crumblesfor lack of basic upkeep.
It is under these regressive conditions that poor communities findthemselves targeted by upscale redevelopment. Decades ago, developersfocused on generating suburban sprawl but the driving down of propertyvalues in the central area that this facilitated, created, over time, areverse process. Since these are market forces and not rational planning,this process has turned into a frenzied drive to create an oversupply ofupscale housing.
The developers’ appetite for profits may be unlimited but urban space isdecidedly finite. Much of the territory slated for redevelopment is alreadyspoken for. Poor people have created homes and neighbourhoods. Publichousing projects have been constructed. People marginalized bydeindustrialization and social cutbacks have moved into the city centrewhere they stand the greatest chance of surviving. These low incomepopulations are, therefore, in the way and, as peasants were once drivenout to make room for sheep grazing, so poor and homeless people are to dayremoved to provide space for luxury condos.
Middle class professionals moving into these contested areas are notcomfortable with the evidence of social destitution around them. Themerchants who cater to the new occupants want to be free of the homeless. The logic of investment, property values and “quality of life” demands theybe removed. An unholy alliance of business interests, higher incomeresidents, media, cops and politicians is formed to take on this job.
Since it is the municipal level of government that has been developed to carryout the public functions that are most closely related to the needs ofproperty investment, City Hall has a central role to play in this regard.
Toronto City Council and the Urban Clearing of the Poor
We can only be struck by the fact that this process of social exclusionreaches its peak when a majority of the seats on Toronto City Council areoccupied by those who have long been viewed as its “progressive” wing.Sadly, however, David Miller and his closest collaborators on Council areorganizing to further the clearing out of the poor and homeless with aneffectiveness that greatly outdoes the halting efforts of the last Mayor.
Miller is able to put a gloss of social enlightenment on the ugliest actsof social injustice. He looks pained when intolerant people talk about thehomeless in mean spirited terms. To him, they are “some of our mostvulnerable citizens” who need to be cured of their “street homelessness” byway of the “tireless” and “seamless” work of “Streets to Homes.”
This is a telling starting point. The issue is not the economic and politicaldecisions that have led to poverty and hardship. It is the “illness” of”street homelessness” that must be tackled and that only requires that thehomeless not be on the street or, more exactly, that that not be seen bythose with money and influence who don’t want them there. If their removalfrom the scene can be organized in a way that appears decent and caring, somuch the better, but that is a secondary matter. The key concern is to getrid of visible homelessness. It this regard, “Streets to Homes” is adubious velvet glove in a very iron fisted operation.
Streets to homes or to slums?
When we draw up a balance sheet for “Streets to Homes,” it is important toconsider that the resources for this initiative have been found by changingpriorities and by withholding funding for long standing and vital servicesfor the homeless.
Despite the official line from City Hall officials that there are enough beds within the homeless shelter system, people are being turned away from these places every night. Five shelters in the centralarea have been closed with only inadequate replacement of the lost beds.This also translates into a loss of 340,000 meals for people on thestreets. These cuts mean worse overcrowding, violence and illness. Thestrategy is to remove the services people need when they are homeless, tocut back on things like street patrols, drop-ins and emergency shelter and,then, to simply repeat that “Streets to Homes” is working and homelessnessis going away.
In its day to day operations, “Streets to Homes” plays a very significantand direct role in this process of removal. One study based on theprogram’s own figures, showed that 36 per cent of housing placements were inoutlying parts of the City. This, however, massively understates things,since the statistics that were released defined the central area as thepre-amalgamation City of Toronto and East York.
This would mean that a chunk of those who were not moved, literally, to the suburbs wouldnonetheless be placed in neighbourhoods a very considerable distance fromthe support networks and services that had enabled them to survive in thepast. Certainly, it appears that a majority of people being placed in unitsby “Streets to Homes” are being dumped outside of the gentrifying andcontested areas they were unwelcome in.
The people that OCAP has contact with confirm this notion of a recklessprocess of removal that pays scant attention to the needs of those exiledto suburban poverty and isolation. We talk to people who have no food andno way of accessing it and who find their way back downtown in an effort tosurvive. We talk to others who have been placed in tiny, scantily furnishedapartments in neighbourhoods where they know no one, without access topublic transport or any conceivable form of recreation and who sink into alonely and depressed state.
The housing conditions that are being experienced have given rise to anunofficial name for the program of “Streets to Slums.” We have seen peopleliving in conditions that would not be tolerated in a jail or homelessshelter. To drop people without income into deplorable housing and providethem with no real support is a recipe for despair and tragedy.
Toronto’s urban policies: Serving redevelopment, not the poor
The great shame of the “progressive” majority on Toronto City Council isthat they have accepted, with their “Streets to Homes” initiative, theagenda of the capitalist classes for redevelopment as an inevitability towhich they must submit. It’s quite true that the higher levels ofgovernment carry most of the blame for the gutting of social provision andthe proliferation of poverty and destitution. That, however, does notexcuse Toronto’s present course. Year by year, the Police budget becomesmore and more bloated while public housing falls apart.
That the Province has abandoned this housing stock is true but why shouldit be more of a priority to unleash record numbers of cops on poorcommunities than to divert resources in order to maintain public housingstock? Indeed, the City has brokered arrangements under which thousands ofunits of Toronto Community Housing are being demolished to build “mixedneighbourhoods.”
Regent Park is being recreated as a condo development with,supposedly, a portion of the housing reserved for rent geared to incomeresidents. Even as Phase One of the development goes up, the actual numberof public housing spaces has been reduced and no one in touch with realitycould imagine that this is anything other than a process of destroyingpublic housing. That such a course will fuel homeless is painfully obvious.
Lack of decent income is the greatest factor in putting people on thestreets. Record numbers of economic evictions are taking place andappallingly low social assistance rates are the key reason for this. True,City Council has passed resolutions that call on Queen’s Park to restorewelfare rates to the real level they stood at before Mike Harris tookpower. However, such gestures count for very little when municipally runwelfare offices operate on the basis of denying benefits whenever they can.If the City were to adopt a policy of full entitlement and ensure thatpeople were told of all available benefits and granted them to the greatestextent possible, economic evictions would decline significantly in Toronto.Yet, City Council has approved measures of welfare “case management” thatwill ensure that people in need will get as little as possible.
“Streets to Homes” is another component of this general politicaldirection. Those driving redevelopment want the contested areas of the Citycleared of the homeless.
The ugly truth is that resources that could actually deal with homelessness areserving the needs of redevelopment. To the extent that it is possible, thehomeless are to be pushed out. Some will be driven off by policeintimidation. Some will find the shelters and services they need no longeravailable and leave in despair. Some will be dumped in outlying areaswithout support in places that have four walls and a ceiling but make amockery of the word “home.”
“Streets to Homes” is dishonest to the core. It deserves to be exposed andchallenged, not handed awards. In place of an inhuman agenda that drivesthe homeless from view, we need the solutions to homelessness that willcome, not from adapting to upscale redevelopment, but from mobilizingcommunities to fight it.