Slim bridge between Toronto’s two solitudes [housing the poor]
TheStar.com – opinions/editorialopinion
Published On Mon Jan 17 2011. By Carol Goar Editorial Board
One of the reasons influential Torontonians seldom speak out about poverty is that they don’t see it.
They live in upscale neighbourhoods, socialize with people who are financially comfortable, take their cars to work and shop where everybody has money.
Even if they drive through a “high needs” neighbourhood, they don’t see the need. From the outside, the crowded, cockroach-infested apartments that house the poor don’t look bad. The tenants don’t beg or scrawl graffiti all over the place.
There are very few bridges between the two worlds.
The United Way is one. Its fundraising team includes the chief executives of Toronto’s leading corporations and public institutions. Its 1.5 million clients include the city’s poorest, more vulnerable residents.
The charity has always taken its major donors on tours of the health and social agencies it supports. But this year, it is going a step further. It is taking opinion leaders on tours of the inner suburbs — neighbourhoods such as Weston-Mt. Denis and Rexdale — to show them what poverty looks like and how it is eroding the city.
The stereotypes of the ’60s and ’70s no longer fit. Most low-income residents don’t live in decrepit boarding houses or inner city tenements. They live in privately owned apartment buildings built 50 years ago.
In their day, these highrises were decent — sometimes even desirable — places to live. Some had swimming pools, tennis courts, party rooms and playgrounds.
Today, their amenities are paved over or boarded up. They accommodate three or four times as many people as they were meant for. The elevators and plumbing break down constantly. Tenants fight a never-ending battle with cockroaches, bedbugs and mice. They’re afraid to let their kids go out after dark.
The United Way depicts this reality in graphic detail in its latest report, Vertical Poverty. It shows how Toronto’s pockets of poverty have spread, now forming a ring around the city core. It urges the city, the province and the federal government, along with the private sector and community agencies to rehabilitate these apartment towers, which not only pose risks to residents but to the vitality of Canada’s largest city.
“We believe we’re at a tipping point,” warns United Way president Susan McIsaac. “The great risk to the future prosperity of our city is neighbourhood decline and disinvestment.”
But a report, no matter how strongly worded, doesn’t have the same impact as seeing poverty up close.
“Until a person can experience the neighbourhood environment, it’s difficult to understand the challenges faced by people living there,” says Scott Perchall, the agency’s vice-president of communications.
The United Way needs informed corporate champions. The non-profit sector can’t fight this battle alone. It has tried for a decade.
The recommendations in Vertical Poverty echo the proposals of anti-poverty activists and social agencies. The report calls for a national housing strategy; an Ontario Housing Benefit to help low-income tenants stave off eviction; an increase in funding for non-profit housing; a zoning amendment requiring developers to include affordable housing in residential highrises; a public investment in retrofitting aging apartments and an industry-government task force to tackle the problem of chronic elevator breakdown.
In an era of retrenchment, this is going to be a hard sell.
Mayor Rob Ford has already cut $100,000 from the city’s tenant defence fund. Premier Dalton McGuinty’s long-promised housing blueprint, released in November, contained no money for new social housing or rent subsidies. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spurned countless requests for a national housing strategy.
The United Way has made a compelling case. Now comes the tough part: mobilizing Torontonians to lift its message off the page.
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