Unwelcome policy at recreation centres

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial Opinion – Fees and bureaucracy block poor families’ access to programs
Published On Mon Jul 05 2010.  Andrea Cohen Executive Director, New Heights Community Health Centres and York Community Services, Margaret Hancock Executive Director, Family Service Toronto

Let’s say you are a mother of two. You want to register your children for a few programs at the community recreation centre in your neighbourhood. They are 12 and 14, summer is here and you want to make sure they have something to do. Someone — a friend, a teacher — has told you about the city’s “welcome policy,” a program that gives people who fall below Canada’s unofficial poverty line access to a few recreation programs per season. (And, it should be noted, many people don’t find out about the welcome policy in time or at all.)

You walk into your community centre and you say: “I want the welcome policy.” Before May of 2009, a front-line worker at the community centre would have taken your information — a tax return, for example — done the paperwork, and registered you and your family for programs right away. If you did not have proof of income, if you were, for example, a refugee recently arrived in the country or someone fleeing domestic violence, the front-line worker would have had room to consider “extenuating circumstances.”

In May of 2009, the city changed the process, removing the ability to grant the welcome policy from front-line workers in local community centres, and handing it over to staff at North York Civic Centre who work only a few days a week. Since this change, the application process for the welcome policy has mystified community agencies and residents alike. We will, however, attempt to explain how we think it works.

In North York, for example, if you have proof of income, you can go to your local community centre or find your way to North York Civic Centre. However you do it, according to city documents, it will now take up to eight weeks to process your policy. (The city says it’s about two weeks if you have all the required paperwork on your first try.)

If you do not have proof of income, you will not be approved by the city. Those with “extenuating circumstances” must find a registered community agency and get a letter from a settlement worker, a social worker or a case worker. Faith groups can also write welcome policy letters (it must be the leader of the congregation). This letter must recommend you for the welcome policy, and list your exact family income.

The process above was uncovered by a group of community agencies and residents, and it took them weeks, working together, to figure it out. Imagine what it’s like for individuals and families. The process is lengthy, confusing and can be humiliating. We know from experience that many give up. As a result, families, seniors and youth are left without access to recreation programs.

These are not the only obstacles to community recreation in Toronto. As of May 2010, the city is applying user and/or registration fees on some formerly free programs, including leisure swimming in pools. In addition, they are raising some existing user fees.

Some neighbourhoods are squeezed in all directions. Take Bathurst-Finch as an example (officially known as “Westminster-Branson”). Designated a “priority” neighbourhood by the city, the area has no “priority” (free) recreation centres. Its tiny, wonderful library is under-resourced and its tiny, wonderful community centre is bursting at the seams. Now neighbourhood residents are facing increased user fees and, as outlined above, a broken subsidy policy that leaves many people behind.

Across the city, community agencies like Family Service Toronto, Griffin Centre, LAMP Community Health Centre, New Heights Community Health Centres, North York Women’s Centre and York Community Services want to go on record to both the city and the province to say that we are facing a growing crisis in accessible community recreation and one that must be addressed now, with summer upon us.

We are asking that the ability to approve welcome policies be returned immediately to front-line workers at recreation centres across the city. We are asking for a reversal in the damaging new fees at community recreation centres. More broadly, we believe the health of our city would improve with a comprehensive range of recreation programs that are free for everyone, across Toronto.

We are not asking for the impossible. Before the provincial government amalgamated several districts into the “megacity” of Toronto in 1998, all community recreation centres in the old City of Toronto were free.

Parks, Forestry and Recreation is now entering a long-term planning process, and reconsidering all its recreation programs. Toronto is also entering a municipal election. At the same time, downloading and funding cuts continue to affect our daily lives. As workers at community agencies, we cannot do our jobs without looking at the larger structures affecting communities. We are beginning here by articulating a vision for accessible recreation. But that’s just a start. Across the city, community workers and residents are looking past the city they’ve given us to the city we want. We will build it, together.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/830787–unwelcome-policy-at-recreation-centres >

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