[Fwd: On HLN: Even Jeffrey Simpson! Globe and Mail, Nov 4]

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Wed, 04 Nov 1998 21:51:30 -0500


-------- Original Message --------
THE GLOBE AND MAIL,  Wednesday, November 4, 1998

On the street

JEFFREY SIMPSON

in Toronto -- Is it a national scandal, or merely a local one, that
so many homeless people call the streets of Toronto their home?

Either way, the existence of so many homeless people in Canada's
largest and wealthiest city is a scandal. Their plight reflects a
tragedy for the people themselves and a blight on Torontonians' shiny
image of their city.

Toronto is not alone among Canadian cities in experiencing increasing
homelessness. Vancouver has a significant problem. Prairie cities
such as Winnipeg and Regina have clusters of homeless, including
aboriginals. Montreal, the poverty capital of Canada, is not immune.
Even Ottawa, that classic middle-class city with per-capita income
above the national average, now finds destitute people on many
downtown streets.

Toronto's centre-of-the-Canadian-universe conceit recently reflected
itself in the description of its homeless problem as a "national
disaster," to use the words of a recent city council debate, whereas
in fact this "disaster" extends to other Canadian cities. The
problem may be more acute and visible in Toronto, but it exists in
most of Canada's major cities.

A network of civic activists in Toronto has tried to draw public
attention to the problem. In response, the provincial government of
Premier Mike Harris established a task force consisting of five
Conservative MPPs. The best they could come up with was a series of
aimless bromides and a $4-million fund allocated to municipalities
to help the homeless.

To the idea that perhaps governments might build social housing, Mr.
Harris replied: "To say that governments should build more housing
and have more boondoggles and ripoffs is not a solution." Of course
there were boondoggles and ripoffs when governments built social
housing, but there were also a few splendid projects and a whole
bunch of functional ones that helped people who needed it.

The federal and provincial governments both have scaled back their
social-housing programs. Through the cracks they used to fill, people
are falling onto the streets and into the parks and hostels.

Toronto officials say that the existing 4,200 hostel beds are
already full and that as many as 500 people are believed to be
sleeping outdoors. More than 26,000 people used the city's emergency
hostel system in 1996, according to the report of a committee chaired
by Anne Golden. Of these, 5,300 were children. Some of the poor souls
in these hostels or on the streets are afflicted with various forms
of mental illness. They obviously need help beyond shelter.

It used to be that Canadians could smugly assume that homelessness
was a largely American phenomenon that reflected badly on U.S.
society. Whatever smugness prevailed ought now to disappear. Indeed,
a network of private and public groups in U.S. cities is trying,
however fitfully, to alleviate the homelessness problems; in Canada,
the private sector seems almost completely disengaged.

In Toronto, the federal government has offered Moss Park Armoury and
Fort York as emergency shelters, as was done last winter. Whether the
city needs these buildings during the cold weather remains to be
seen, but Ottawa could certainly do more in Toronto and elsewhere.

This is, after all, an emergency with accompanying personal
tragedies. Contributing to Toronto's hostel shortage are the refugees
who arrive in Toronto under federal laws, placing a burden on
municipal and provincial programs to provide temporary shelter while
refugee claims are heard, a process that can take a very long time
indeed.

This is a federal government whose leader, after all, once claimed to
have spoken to a homeless person. Prime Minister Jean Chr=E9tien
couldn't exactly remember the time or place of the conversation but
insisted it had occurred. So, by his own admission, Mr. Chr=E9tien has
at least a fleeting familiarity with the situation.

As for the Harris government, its attitude, as in so many other
matters, is marked by a stinging indifference to suffering.
Presumably few of the homeless vote, and of those who do why would
any of them vote Conservative? Whatever noblesse oblige used to
exist in the old Tory party of Ontario, it is now but a pale shadow
of its former self.

Poverty, drug abuse, mental illness, cracks in the social system --
these all manifest themselves in homelessness. Dealing with the
challenge will defy easy solutions. But a city such as Toronto, and a
country such as Canada, have few plausible excuses for not applying
the public and private energies necessary to alleviate the suffering.

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