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2007 06 29
Homelessness in a Growth Economy

This week a report entitled Shelter: Homelessness in a Growth Economy(Gordon Laird for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership), which examines the issue of homelessness in Canada was released. Several cities are used as case studies in this report, and the chapter headings are quite telling:

IQALUIT: Discovering Canada’s Hidden Homeless
OTTAWA: The National Underclass
CALGARY: Poverty Amid Affluence
VANCOUVER: New Frontiers

And…..drum roll please……..TORONTO: Ground Zero. That’s right, not only are we the centre of the universe, we’re also at the epicenter of a national homelessness crisis.

“….Toronto has become significant in two ways: first, it represents the largest single mass of homeless people in Canada; and second, it displays the first and probably most chronic failure of the containment and management response proffered by governments across Canada. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Toronto in particular, became a catchment area for dispossessed people across central Canada: some 31,985 homeless people (including 4,779 children) stayed in a Toronto shelter at least once during 2002, according to the City of Toronto’s 2003 Housing and Homelessness Report Card” (p. 41).

The city’s controversial 2006 Street Needs Assessment (aka the ‘homeless count’), insensitive and inaccurate as it was (the TDRC explains why here)made one thing clear: First Nations people are disproportionately represented among the homeless, and stay homeless longer than other groups. The City’s entire report can be found here.

The release of this week's report was timed beautifully (although I am not sure whether it was deliberate) to coincide with today’s National Day of Action for Aboriginal Peoples . I was thus very (pleasantly) surprised to see that the report referred to Canadian Aboriginal policies as hearkening back to the Victorian Era:

“Here, as elsewhere, homelessness is the new Indian reserve, not only because Aboriginals are highly over-represented among the ranks of the homeless, but also because policy, especially during the 1990s, came to resemble that of 19th century Canada. Quite literally, it is in major centres like Toronto that our response to homelessness most clearly recalls Victorian social practice – a return to the days when paupers, criminals and the mentally ill were often warehoused in the same poor houses that resemble the modern emergency shelter both in form and function……….” (p. 41-42).

Further, one First Nations woman notes that “Emergency shelters are the Indian reservations of the 21st century” (p. 47). This phrasing is pointed and clear – perhaps this language should be used in deputations to City Council.

However, there was something key missing from this report: global city politics. Although this issue was briefly mentioned in the chapter on Vancouver, what about Toronto? There are as many ways to measure and define a ‘global city’ as there are world city theorists (which are many), but Toronto is increasingly described in the literature as a global city, albeit a second tier or ‘beta’ city. But even if world city theorists cannot agree on how exactly to define a global city, they generally agree that the more articulated a city becomes into the global economy, the wider the gap between rich and poor becomes, while rates of homelessness rise inexorably.

Toronto’s current cultural renaissance has been making national, and even international news in the last few years – high profile multi-million dollar projects involving architecture and public space have become ubiquitous in this City. And the pundits proclaim: this will put Toronto on the map! This will show the world there’s more to Toronto than the CN Tower! Toronto isn’t just MULTIcultural, we’re CULTURAL too! David Miller is particularly prone to making these comments nearly ever single time he is asked about a new project in Toronto.

I hate to break it to you Toronto, but these projects aren’t for you: they are for the rest of the world. Building our tourism, garnering business interests and doing our best to make Toronto appear to be one of the most livable cities in the world. The real question is: who are we making Toronto more livable for? The homeless and/or underserviced urban First Nations populations? The many Torontonians who are struggling to survive on the pittance that they call social assistance? The majority of us who live paycheck to paycheck?

Now don’t get me wrong: I love this city dearly, and these projects will improve city life immeasurably; I’m looking forward to the new waterfront just like everyone else. But leave us not have any false illusions: the redesign of Nathan Phillips Square overshadows the fact that the homeless are not welcome there, and the new Rom Crystal building eclipses the fact that Friday evening visits are no longer free. Let us enjoy our new amenities as Torontonians, and all that they add to the urban fabric. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that we are the first priority for their existence, or that the new Four Seasons Centre benefits the homeless person sleeping on the grate right across the street.

Image taken by me at Woodbine Beach in 2007.

Liza Badaloo's love of Toronto does not prevent her from seeing injustice and maintaining a critical standpoint.
[email this story] Posted by Liza Badaloo on 06/29 at 07:11 PM

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