How activists moved homeless to top of Toronto agenda FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 17 Nov 1998 01:38:09 -0400


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http://www2.thestar.com:80/thestar/back_issues/ED19981114/news/981114NEW27_C=
I-RO
YSON14.html
=46WD  Toronto Star - November 14, 1998


HOW HOMELESS MOVED TO TOP OF CITY AGENDA
By Royson James - The Cities


HOW DID homelessness - a perennial problem - become front-page news, a
political hot potato and an agenda item for our governments?

 It took an unlikely mix of a yappy mayor determined to make amends for an
election gaffe, angry protests from anti-poverty activists, shrewd
politicking by left-wing allies, and finally, utter disgust and
embarrassment from ordinary Torontonians as the problem stared them in the
face.

 ``The key is there were so many new homeless, so many on the street,''
said Councillor Jack Layton, a key figure in the year-long drama. ``You
can't invent an issue out of nothing.''

 Homelessness got on the city's political agenda by accident, thanks to a
election blunder that blew up in Mel Lastman's face. During the run up to
the megacity election over a year ago, he said there were no homeless
people in North York, save one who refused to come in from the cold.

 That night, a homeless woman, Linda Houston, died in a gas station - in
North York - and Lastman's gaffe turned into an election issue.

 The image - of a myopic, insensitive civic leader - enraged Lastman. He
thought it unfair, but his political instincts told him no amount of
explanation of his flippancy would change the perception. Only action would.

 ``I am a caring person. It's unfortunate it didn't come out that way
during the campaign,'' Lastman told reporters the morning after the
election. He pledged the issue would be a personal priority.

 Lastman has a reputation of surrounding himself with good people. Layton,
an expert on the homeless issue, knew Lastman would need help grasping the
magnitude of the problem. Although not a Lastman supporter during the
campaign, Layton saw an opportunity and seized it. He offered Lastman all
the help he needed, took the mayor's chief of staff to see the problem
first-hand and dutifully accepted the job he wanted all along, heading
council's committee on homelessness.

 An unlikely alliance resulted. Layton would be Mel's homelessness
lieutenant. The street people now had an ally in the inner circle of city
hall.

 By spring, it became clear that provincial cuts to welfare payments, the
end of rent controls, the nixing of any new social housing and the
unwillingness of the private sector to build rental units had resulted in
an explosion of people living on the streets.

 Beset by complaints, city council moved to curtail begging. Lastman waged
a campaign against squeegeeing. It seemed that instead of aiding the
homeless, the city was about to harass them out of town.

 The radical activists reacted with pickets and protests.

 As the city's grants committee met on June 1, ``the ruffians'' from the
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (COAP), the most strident of the
activists, crashed the committee meeting and demanded a closed hostel be
reopened.

 Told such a decision was outside the committee's jurisdiction, they got
angrier - taunting and shouting.

 ``I'll be damned if I'll let more people die on the street,'' screamed
Gaetan Heroux, a social worker and coalition member. A promised meeting
with staff ended the standoff, but they would be back to city hall again
and again. Outside, coalition head John Clarke outlined his strategy to
make life miserable for those who opposed shelters. His group would picket
restaurants and businesses until they relented.

 Midsummer, July 22, and Lastman called a news conference. Anne Golden, the
United Way chair who headed the mayor's homelessness task force, presented
an interim report. OCAP and the rabble rousers were there. They heckled and
pestered the mayor, stopping only as security guards moved in to evict them.

 The day before, Golden had taken Lastman on a tour of some city agencies
and facilities that house the homeless. It was the mayor's epiphany.

 ``I sat and I talked and had coffee with them - heroin addicts and hookers
and guys with schizophrenia - everyone had a major problem. There was this
guy who'd been on the street 20-odd years,'' recalls Lastman, his voice
dropping to a whisper. ``One had no arms and no legs. It hit me right where
it hurts. I hate it. I actually hate it. It's horrible to see. I'm
disgusted it is happening here. And when people freeze to death, I feel
responsible.''

 By now, others were beginning to feel responsible as well.

 Even from 905 country, letters to the editor called for someone, anyone,
to ``do something'' to end the embarrassment in Canada's richest city.

 ``Yes, it does look bad,'' admitted Lastman, when he returned from one of
his trips selling Toronto abroad. ``How can you be proud of your city when
you have to walk over people on your way to work?''

 Last May, street nurse Cathy Crowe had asked council's strategy committee
for people without homes to declare homelessness a national disaster. The
committee, chaired by Layton, asked for a staff report. The report died at
council.

 Disappointed by council's inaction, Crowe and others like Beric German, an
AIDS worker, convened a meeting to hatch the plan for the declaration. The
Toronto Disaster Relief Committee was born.

 Over the summer they hammered out the document. It had to be an easy,
powerful read, well-researched and ``accessible to everyone from
journalists to Rotary Club to people on the streets,'' Crowe said.

 Release date was to be in September, but there was no money for printing
and mailing the 30-page report.

 Then Vernon Crow died, shirtless on a chilly night, surrounded by empty
bottles of cheap cooking wine. Many street workers like Crowe, Heroux and
German knew Crow. So, when they met with citizens, politicians and allies
in a downtown church on Oct. 8 to release their ``national disaster''
document, the air was raw with emotion.

 ``We had had other deaths, but a lot of people knew Vern. Hypothermia was
a factor in his death and it was only late September (Oct. 1, actually). It
woke people up.''

 Crowe read off the names of 30 people who'd died on the streets in recent
years.

 ``It is wrong that because detox beds are full in this city, people are
made to languish on the sidewalks,'' Crowe said, her voice laden with
emotion. ``It is wrong for police to jail poor people just because they
have no money for housing and have to sleep in a park, panhandle or
squeegee.''

The audience erupted into applause.

 By now Lastman was sounding like a member of OCAP. Snarling and screaming,
he attacked the senior levels of government for ``sitting on their cans''
while the country's major city languished.

 By the time a standing-room-only crowd of academics, squeegee kids,
activists, the poor, street workers and ordinary Torontonians crammed the
council chamber at Metro Hall on Oct. 27, the vote was already cemented.

 Councillors, with Lastman leading the charge, fell over each other trying
to endorse the declaration.

The vote, 53-1, seemed to stun the activists.

 Last Thursday, Ottawa-Carleton council followed suit, unanimously. And
next week, Layton is to take a message from Lastman to the big city mayors'
caucus in Winnipeg, urging similar action.

 The council vote gave street workers hope, said Crowe. But not much has
changed. ``I mark off on the calendar that 14 days have passed and nothing
has happened.''

 Six days after the vote, Richard Howard became the fifth homeless victim
in as many weeks to die on Toronto's streets.

 Three days later, and nine days after council endorsed the resolution,
OCAP stormed an empty Doctor's Hospital and demanded the city open a
shelter there immediately.

[Royson James' column usually appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.]

END FORWARD
-
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is
distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in
receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. **

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/>  Home Page
ARCHIVES  <http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/archives.html>  read posts to HPN
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*******************************************************


http://www2.thestar.com:80/thestar/back_issues/ED19981114/news/981114NEW27_C=
I-ROYSON14.html

=46WD  Toronto Star - November 14, 1998    =20



<paraindent><param>right,left</param>HOW HOMELESS MOVED TO TOP OF CITY
AGENDA

By Royson James - The Cities

</paraindent>


HOW DID homelessness - a perennial problem - become front-page news, a
political hot potato and an agenda item for our governments?


 It took an unlikely mix of a yappy mayor determined to make amends for
an election gaffe, angry protests from anti-poverty activists, shrewd
politicking by left-wing allies, and finally, utter disgust and
embarrassment from ordinary Torontonians as the problem stared them in
the face.


 ``The key is there were so many new homeless, so many on the street,''
said Councillor Jack Layton, a key figure in the year-long drama. ``You
can't invent an issue out of nothing.''


 Homelessness got on the city's political agenda by accident, thanks to
a election blunder that blew up in Mel Lastman's face. During the run
up to the megacity election over a year ago, he said there were no
homeless people in North York, save one who refused to come in from the
cold.


 That night, a homeless woman, Linda Houston, died in a gas station -
in North York - and Lastman's gaffe turned into an election issue.


 The image - of a myopic, insensitive civic leader - enraged Lastman.
He thought it unfair, but his political instincts told him no amount of
explanation of his flippancy would change the perception. Only action
would.


 ``I am a caring person. It's unfortunate it didn't come out that way
during the campaign,'' Lastman told reporters the morning after the
election. He pledged the issue would be a personal priority.


 Lastman has a reputation of surrounding himself with good people.
Layton, an expert on the homeless issue, knew Lastman would need help
grasping the magnitude of the problem. Although not a Lastman supporter
during the campaign, Layton saw an opportunity and seized it. He
offered Lastman all the help he needed, took the mayor's chief of staff
to see the problem first-hand and dutifully accepted the job he wanted
all along, heading council's committee on homelessness.


 An unlikely alliance resulted. Layton would be Mel's homelessness
lieutenant. The street people now had an ally in the inner circle of
city hall.


 By spring, it became clear that provincial cuts to welfare payments,
the end of rent controls, the nixing of any new social housing and the
unwillingness of the private sector to build rental units had resulted
in an explosion of people living on the streets.


 Beset by complaints, city council moved to curtail begging. Lastman
waged a campaign against squeegeeing. It seemed that instead of aiding
the homeless, the city was about to harass them out of town.=20


 The radical activists reacted with pickets and protests.


 As the city's grants committee met on June 1, ``the ruffians'' from
the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (COAP), the most strident of the
activists, crashed the committee meeting and demanded a closed hostel
be reopened.


 Told such a decision was outside the committee's jurisdiction, they
got angrier - taunting and shouting.


 ``I'll be damned if I'll let more people die on the street,'' screamed
Gaetan Heroux, a social worker and coalition member. A promised meeting
with staff ended the standoff, but they would be back to city hall
again and again. Outside, coalition head John Clarke outlined his
strategy to make life miserable for those who opposed shelters. His
group would picket restaurants and businesses until they relented.


 Midsummer, July 22, and Lastman called a news conference. Anne Golden,
the United Way chair who headed the mayor's homelessness task force,
presented an interim report. OCAP and the rabble rousers were there.
They heckled and pestered the mayor, stopping only as security guards
moved in to evict them.


 The day before, Golden had taken Lastman on a tour of some city
agencies and facilities that house the homeless. It was the mayor's
epiphany.


 ``I sat and I talked and had coffee with them - heroin addicts and
hookers and guys with schizophrenia - everyone had a major problem.
There was this guy who'd been on the street 20-odd years,'' recalls
Lastman, his voice dropping to a whisper. ``One had no arms and no
legs. It hit me right where it hurts. I hate it. I actually hate it.
It's horrible to see. I'm disgusted it is happening here. And when
people freeze to death, I feel responsible.''


 By now, others were beginning to feel responsible as well.


 Even from 905 country, letters to the editor called for someone,
anyone, to ``do something'' to end the embarrassment in Canada's
richest city.


 ``Yes, it does look bad,'' admitted Lastman, when he returned from one
of his trips selling Toronto abroad. ``How can you be proud of your
city when you have to walk over people on your way to work?''


 Last May, street nurse Cathy Crowe had asked council's strategy
committee for people without homes to declare homelessness a national
disaster. The committee, chaired by Layton, asked for a staff report.
The report died at council.


 Disappointed by council's inaction, Crowe and others like Beric
German, an AIDS worker, convened a meeting to hatch the plan for the
declaration. The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee was born.


 Over the summer they hammered out the document. It had to be an easy,
powerful read, well-researched and ``accessible to everyone from
journalists to Rotary Club to people on the streets,'' Crowe said.


 Release date was to be in September, but there was no money for
printing and mailing the 30-page report.


 Then Vernon Crow died, shirtless on a chilly night, surrounded by
empty bottles of cheap cooking wine. Many street workers like Crowe,
Heroux and German knew Crow. So, when they met with citizens,
politicians and allies in a downtown church on Oct. 8 to release their
``national disaster'' document, the air was raw with emotion.


 ``We had had other deaths, but a lot of people knew Vern. Hypothermia
was a factor in his death and it was only late September (Oct. 1,
actually). It woke people up.''


 Crowe read off the names of 30 people who'd died on the streets in
recent years.


 ``It is wrong that because detox beds are full in this city, people
are made to languish on the sidewalks,'' Crowe said, her voice laden
with emotion. ``It is wrong for police to jail poor people just because
they have no money for housing and have to sleep in a park, panhandle
or squeegee.''


The audience erupted into applause.


 By now Lastman was sounding like a member of OCAP. Snarling and
screaming, he attacked the senior levels of government for ``sitting on
their cans'' while the country's major city languished.=20


 By the time a standing-room-only crowd of academics, squeegee kids,
activists, the poor, street workers and ordinary Torontonians crammed
the council chamber at Metro Hall on Oct. 27, the vote was already
cemented.


 Councillors, with Lastman leading the charge, fell over each other
trying to endorse the declaration.


The vote, 53-1, seemed to stun the activists.


 Last Thursday, Ottawa-Carleton council followed suit, unanimously. And
next week, Layton is to take a message from Lastman to the big city
mayors' caucus in Winnipeg, urging similar action.


 The council vote gave street workers hope, said Crowe. But not much
has changed. ``I mark off on the calendar that 14 days have passed and
nothing has happened.''


 Six days after the vote, Richard Howard became the fifth homeless
victim in as many weeks to die on Toronto's streets.


 Three days later, and nine days after council endorsed the resolution,
OCAP stormed an empty Doctor's Hospital and demanded the city open a
shelter there immediately.


[Royson James' column usually appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.]


END FORWARD

-

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is=
 distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in=
 receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. *=
*


HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK  <<http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/>  Home Page

ARCHIVES  <<http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/archives.html>  read posts to HPN

TO JOIN  <<http://aspin.asu.edu/hpn/join.html> or email Tom <<wgcp@earthlink=
=2Enet>

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