Last Friday, February the 15th, I had just bought a coffee at the St Lawrence Market, found a free table, and there was a copy of Now Magazine on it face up. I haven’t read Now Magazine for months – although people do say it is an alternative voice. If it had been one of those 10 Best Tacos in TO – or some similar inane headline, I would have folded it up and set it aside – or maybe used it as a makeshift tablecloth. But the headline was: Crisis? What Crisis? Toronto Abandons Its Homeless People.
I sat down and opened up the paper which randomly happened to be page 9 and the headline Hiding In Plain Sight and then I saw By Greg Cook – and I was like – Greg! I’ve known Greg for 8 years – we run into each other from time to time – I just saw him in Kensington Market in January after – what – 18 months? So I read the article twice, and the accompanying ones on the subject of homelessness in Toronto by other writers. I had to pause to reflect.
On Tuesday, I went to see Greg at The Sanctuary Mission on Charles Street. When I saw him in January he’d said stop by, so Tuesday was the day, around noon, just before the lunch sitting. I told him the story I’ve just shared with you – that it was as if I was supposed to read his story. And I suppose I also wanted to make some sense of it. To ask him – what should we do? It’s not like it’s a new story of course, but when you read something from somebody you’ve known for years – it touches you in a way that maybe an article by someone you don’t know doesn’t.
In particular, I wanted to ask him about the closing paragraph: “Toronto needs a housing plan that ensures the building of thousands of units for people who need them the most.” “Anything less will mean more needless suffering and death.” So, I wondered. Toronto doesn’t have a Housing plan?
Greg explained about how housing plans had waned – first on the federal level in the 1980s, then provincially in the 1990s, leaving the city to deal with non-market type housing – which it apparently doesn’t have the finances and tax raising capability to do.
Though the Federal government have announced new initiatives, these haven’t come down the pipeline yet – and meanwhile, publically owned land close to TTC stations – the best opportunity for social and affordable housing – are being eyed up for more private development. How is that even possible? I enquired. How could City Planners be involved in such a thing when its so obvious that we have a homeless crisis, a housing crisis? – and not just for the lower classes, but increasingly, as Greg pointed out to me, the middle classes, and millennials.
What is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good –
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
We spoke about the situation for a few minutes. But the so called rich people – they’re suffering too, I said. They’ve lost their hearts, their humanity. Greg pointed out that though that was the case, the suffering – or the price being paid for it – was falling disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable. I told him I’d think it over and email him a response.
Greg suggested I check out a book he’d recently read from the Toronto Public Library – The Creative Destruction of New York City: Engineering the City For The Elite. And there’s the thing – right there in the title – the suggestion that it’s not an inevitable result of invisible or unforeseen forces – but an engineering.
I cycled down to the City Hall branch where a copy was available. I didn’t notice the birds but Nathan Phillips Square was looking pretty desolate. A city worker was throwing salt on the vast swathes of concrete. I noticed my bike really needs a wash as I parked it on solid ice by the bike racks – a far cry from the clean bike on all those summer mornings parking at the same spot. As I was looking for The Creative Destruction I saw another book in the same section; Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live In The New Urban America. I checked them both out.
(Here’s an extract from The Creative Destruction: “Local government, the real estate industry, large corporations and banking giants; in the game they call “production of the city”, what else is the city if not a giant machine for making money?
The consensus is so powerful that it invalidates “any alternative vision of the purpose of local government or the meaning of community.”
We are becoming nothing but consumers of an urban experience that has been entirely designed and packaged by these powerful players.”) – Sound familiar?
I’ve seen Greg out on the streets over the years – as part of his outreach work – checking in on people living out on the streets, asking them how they’re doing – if they need any help – and what’s available to them if they do. This is like survival territory – that they’re going to be okay for the next 24 to 48 hours – not a long term solution – not the breakthrough solution that’s going to radically change their circumstances for the better. That they’re going to live out the next couple of days! But can you imagine what it means – just to have that human experience of someone on the lookout for you, caring about you, and recognising you as a human being when most people just seem to have abandoned you?
What’s my responsibility now?