[Hpn] No backyards or picket fences: Suburban poor face many unique challenges

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Tue, 8 Jul 2003 15:11:03 -0400


>From the Op/Ed pages of today's Toronto Star:

No backyards or picket fences
Suburban poor face many unique challenges that make being poor downtown
seem, well, easier


We tend to think of poverty as a downtown phenomenon. After all, suburban
life arose as the more well-off high-tailed it out of gritty,
problem-plagued city centres.

The first portrayal of suburbs was as wealthy utopias of white picket
fences, lawnmowers and backyard pools. Films, books and popular thinking
would have us believe that suburban streets are paved with gold.

That's not so true today.

Toronto's suburbs contain pockets of very real, largely hidden poverty.
Increasingly, suburban high-rise developments are packed with immigrants
crowded too many to a room with family and friends. Single mothers raise
their children in suburban complexes and supplement welfare with trips to
the food bank. Seniors live on fixed, strained incomes, as do the working

Recent reports over the imminent closing of a food bank in the low-income
area around Flemingdon Park in North York highlight the extent of suburban
poverty. They also illustrate some of the particular issues poor people face
when they live far from more well-known downtown areas like Regent Park or

Flemingdon Park was built in the 1950s as one of the first planned
communities  a prototypical suburban utopia. Flemingdon Park today is one
of the city's most multicultural places. It's a traditional first home to
immigrants who usually have more than 10 years of work experience but are
back to square one upon arrival in Canada.

It used to be that such people would move into Flemingdon Park, and be well
on their way to brighter and better things within a couple of years. Today,
high rents and stagnant incomes mean that people are stuck, unable to move
on, surviving on Ontario Works money that doesn't leave enough after rent to
pay for food.

It seems cruel to compare poverties, but indeed, if you live in the downtown
core you can usually walk to services such as food banks, health and legal
clinics, and welfare offices. There are places to panhandle. Community
workers can get to homeless people to deliver emergency first aid.

But Toronto's population growth over the past decade has been concentrated
disproportionately in the former suburbs of York, Scarborough, North York,
East York and Etobicoke, where services remain few and far between.

While the closure of one food bank in Parkdale or Regent Park would not be
the end of the world, the Red Cross's decision to close its Flemingdon
office leaves food bank users without options. Getting anywhere requires a
car or a long, difficult ride on public transit.

I'm not the first to note that being poor is a full-time job. Without money
for transportation or child care or ample leisure time after putting in
full-time hours at a minimum wage job, the idea of travelling an hour or
more to get food is just a sad joke.

Front-line community workers are becoming all too aware of the hidden
homelessness (couch-surfing, overcrowding) and poverty of Toronto's suburban
The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee is making attempts to reach out to
suburban community groups to broaden the scope of its housing and advocacy.

Other groups, from the Syme Woolner Neighbourhood and Family Centre in the
City of York to the Flemingdon Inter-Agency Council in North York to the
LAMP (Lakeshore Area Multi-Services Project Inc.) Community Health Centre in
South Etobicoke are working to get community members together to speak out
about the situations they face and jointly come up with strategies to deal
with them. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has opened an office at
York University in North York.

Despite all this, it is difficult to organize people who are geographically
separated and essentially invisible, shut away by the barriers of travel
time and language.

In 2002, the United Way initiated a $1.6 million, three-year Suburban
Funding Strategy project to provide grants for direct service in
under-served communities. Such help is desperately needed, but the basic
problems that have led to suburban poverty also need to be addressed at each
level of government.

While the experience of poverty is different in the suburbs, the causes are
the same, and include preventable causes such as high and uncontrolled
rents, discrimination in housing, low-incomes, unemployment and an
inadequate minimum wage.

Planning is another critical factor. Planning Action, a group of architects,
planners and activists, has noted that the new official plan for the city of
Toronto, unveiled in September, 2002, implies pushing poor people out of
revitalized downtown spaces and into the high-density, isolated suburbs
where they are physically separated from wealthier residents and from
essential services.

The former residents of Tent City, now dispersed throughout the suburbs, are
a good example. As Planning Action members Adrian Blackwell and Kanishka
Goonewardena wrote in the Planners Network magazine this winter, ``One of
the lasting legacies of Toronto's high-density modernist housing is that
people are both concentrated and isolated from one another at the same

It's horrifying to realize that those of us who live downtown are becoming
inured to the evidence of deep, intolerable poverty on Toronto's streets.
Homelessness and poverty in the suburbs are even easier to ignore. When we
do so, we take another step in the wrong direction, away from making Toronto
an attractive site for business investment and prospective immigrants and an
enjoyable, safe and healthy place to live.

Carlyn Zwarenstein worked for the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee from
January to May of this year.