Passing the buck on homelessness (fwd)

Leslie Schentag (
Thu, 25 Mar 1999 17:37:00 -0800 (PST)

  Leslie Schentag
  Gremlin Research Consultants
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  "When Freedom Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Be Free"
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 "It is better to die on your feet than live a lifetime on your knees"
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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 14:14:49 -0800 (PST)
From: Geneva Hagen <>
To: Leslie Schentag <>
Subject: Passing the buck on homelessness (fwd)

---------- Forwarded message ----------

 March 25, 1999 

Passing the homeless bucks back and forth 

 [By Rosemary Speirs - National Affairs]
OTTAWA - FEDERAL CABINET MINISTERS will arrive at Mayor Mel Lastman's summit
on homelessness in Toronto today with their feathers already ruffled by the
outspoken mayor's call for a bigger contribution from Prime Minister Jean

``This won't be an easy conference because there's an expectation that we're
coming with a Brinks truck to unload gold bars at City Hall,'' says
Transport Minister David Collenette, who is Chrétien's political minister
for the Toronto area. 

Collenette is also the designated federal hitman at the summit - dispatched
to get across the message that Finance Minister Paul Martin transferred
billions more to the provinces in his budget, and now it is up to the
premiers, in particular Ontario's Mike Harris, to pass it on. Collenette
says it's also high time that Lastman put more city funding into the
homeless emergency. 

Labour Minister Claudette Bradshaw, who was appointed by Chrétien on Tuesday
as federal minister for the homeless, will be the good cop of the federal
delegation. Bradshaw is expected to announce some new federal initiatives,
but she won't be handing over any big cheques today. 

One of the things she'll promise to consider is the possible use of federal
lands in the Metro area - on the waterfront, the old Downsview military base
or federal property such as the Sir William Mulock building at Jarvis and
Dundas Sts. - for cheaper housing. We've heard that one before. 

Bradshaw will also agree to Ontario Social Services Minister Janet Ecker's
demand for a fast-track of negotiations to devolve federal authority over
social housing to the provinces, along with some $50 million in funding.
(Ecker's already spent the money: It's half the $100 million she pledged
this week to the homeless cause). And Bradshaw will promise to consider what
else the feds can do to solve the shelter problem, possibly through the
Central Mortgage and Housing Corp. 

Chances are, however, that the federal Liberals are going to take a drubbing
at the summit for failing to provide more leadership. Anne Golden's report
on homelessness called for $300 million in federal funding to encourage the
building of low-income housing. That kind of special fund won't be
forthcoming from Ottawa. 

Federal spokespeople argue that Chrétien's hands are tied by the rules of
the new social union, negotiated with the nine provinces (except Quebec).
Chrétien has promised not to use the federal spending power to force new
national programs on the provinces. So if Ottawa were to come up with, say,
$500 million for a national campaign against homelessness, the premiers
would quickly be up in arms, accusing him of intruding on their

This may be political reality, but it isn't going to go over well with the
local politicians and homeless activists at today's conference. To them, it
will sound like more passing of the buck. There's a good possibility the
summit will turn into a blame-the-other-guy session, particularly if Lastman
shoots from the hip at Chrétien. 

Collenette was miffed in advance at the prospect of criticism, noting that
Ottawa put up $50,000 toward the cost of the summit, and $300,000 to help
pay for Golden's task force. The federal minister will argue that Martin's
budget provided the wherewithall for provincial action - another $4.4
billion to Ontario over five years for health-care funding, and $962 million
more for social assistance. It's up to Harris and Ecker to use that extra
federal funding to help the street people who are out in the cold because of
psychiatric problems, or because they were cut off welfare by stricter
provincial eligibility rules, he says. 

Among Toronto's Liberal MPs, who lobbied Chrétien to make homelessness a
federal cause, there's a certain frustration that the message isn't getting
across. Martin mentioned the word homeless only once in his budget - in a
passing reference. That was because Chrétien had designated the 1999 budget
as a ``health-care'' budget, and wanted to make sure the media focused
exclusively on the restored funding for medicare. The budget also removed
the decade-old cap on federal funding for social assistance to the rich
provinces of Ontario, Alberta and B.C, but Chrétien didn't want too much of
a fuss about that because of resentment from have-not Quebec. 

Because of those overriding strategic considerations, the federal Liberals
feel they now are taking an unfair rap on the homelessness issue. Their
argument is weakened, however, by the fact that the new billions they boast
about came in the form of transfer payments to the provinces. 

The premiers can spend the money as they please, and may well decide that
homelessness is not their top priority. Collenette can only attempt today to
embarrass Harris into passing more of the new federal funding to the homeless. 

But the chances are good that low-key Collenette will have trouble getting
his message past Lastman. The mayor is better at grandstanding. 


Rosemary Speirs is The Star's national affairs columnist.