Hot! Ousted housing board betrayed the public trust

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Mon Mar 07 2011.   Pat Capponi

The former chair of Toronto Community Housing Corp. has tried to blame Mayor Rob Ford for the board’s resignation, miffed there was no courtesy phone call before the mayor publicly called for their heads.

It seems the board hopes the anti-Ford element will see them as victims of a bullying mayor rather than focus on their out-of-control spending. And they still don’t get it, still don’t understand the massiveness of their betrayal of the public trust. Like Richard Nixon, they grumble and feel hard done by, we won’t have them to kick around anymore.

This culture of entitlement at TCHC — underscored by the city auditor — is what rankles most, and amid the charges of untendered contracts and wasted dollars that is saying a lot. Such a culture must be traced to its roots, and those roots are ugly and disturbing.

If the board and senior management had seen their tenants as people much like themselves, people who have faced great hardships and challenges rather than as a ragtag collection of problems and disturbances that needed to be managed and controlled by their betters, they would feel the shame they now reject. Shades of colonialism — the natives are so incapable, so other, that whatever we do must be better than what they would do on their own. The white man’s burden.

I have worked with a number of TCHC tenants over the years, as lead facilitator at Voices From the Street, a grassroots initiative that offers a 12-week course on public policy, advocacy, public speaking and leadership for the poor, the homeless and those suffering from addictions, mental illness or physical disabilities.

Last year we did a group in the belly of the beast, and it was clear that management’s view had so inculcated all levels of the organization that I had to create a rule that the tenants in the group could not, for at least three days, blame all the ills in their buildings on other residents.

Once that was in place, we could look at where the problems were, what the solutions could be, how people could organize and help themselves and their fellow tenants. People grew in leaps and bounds, their voices became their own, they stopped parroting the staff lines and started to develop their own ideas.

It was interesting and instructive that at the entrance to the room on day one a dead roach, squashed flat, greeted the participants.

This group was the brainchild of TCHC resident Linda Coltman. She fought for it, and brought it about.

There was never any effort by management or the board to develop the potential of their tenants, to ensure that tenant representatives had proper training and exposure to anti-racism and anti-oppression skills, so that those labelled mentally ill were not hounded, harassed and bullied. Tenants lived with the frustration of repairs never done; eviction notices handed out without thought or kindness; management’s failure to realize how much tenants dreamed of a better place, where their individual talents could be used, where their contributions could be recognized and their ideas turned into reality. I was so impressed by their courage, their strengths, their tenacity — many of us would have cashed in our chips rather than endure one more day of the horrors they were forced to deal with.

The gap between the upper levels and the mass of tenants yawns wide. So wide that a culture of entitlement (and TCHC is not the only agency that has this viral disease) was inevitable. Poverty works very effectively to camouflage a person’s worth and ability, especially when there is no real effort to bridge the gap, to sit down and listen to the individual, really listen with an open mind and open heart.

Instead, we have manipulation and tokenism, not hard when people are so hungry and dependent for any recognition, for any position that says, “I am better than all the other tenants, the staff like me.” Shame on those who have allowed this culture of entitlement to take such deep roots, who settled comfortably in offices — bedbug free, I’m sure — and no doubt felt they were acting charitably toward their charges.

What truly rankles is how little is needed to get the tenants back on track to a decent life, one in which they can take control of their immediate environment, their home, and build trusting relationships with one another.

It is to be hoped that the mayor will recognize that tenants have to have a large place on the new board, but that training must be part of the entrance requirement to taking a seat. And that there are many who are quite capable of taking on the jobs of high-paid staff, many who won’t feel the need for excess pampering, who will be more than satisfied simply to have work.

Having tenants in numbers on the board, on the staff and on committees will begin to break down that colonialist culture as the poor sit across from the advantaged and speak their truths in ways that must be heard, felt and responded to.

Pat Capponi has lived in poverty, and has written numerous books on the issues.

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