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AN IDEA FOR "RECYCLED" HOUSING

("SQUAT THOUGHTS")

The recent eviction of fifty young people from a disused building on Carlton St., and the subsequent rout of protesters from the Peace Garden by Metro Police has raised many serious ethical issues that the City of Toronto has no choice but to deal with. 

The number of homeless people continues to skyrocket as vicious Provincial and Federal cuts continue to erode housing subsidies, social assistance benefits, and services for vulnerable persons. An estimated 17,000 units of non-profit housing were cancelled by the Tories WITHIN TWO MONTHS OF THEM BEING ELECTED.The 21.6 cut to Welfare payments has resulted in many more individuals being unable to meet their rent obligations. Since the beginning of January, requests to the court for Writs of Possession have risen by as much as thirty-eight per cent over the same period last year. Yet, while all this is going on, scores - perhaps hundreds - of residential, office, and retail buildings are standing empty and unused inthe City of Toronto. In some cases, they have been so for years. 

No doubt a number of these premises are structurally unsound, and may in fact pose a grave risk of fire. But in my mind, this does not justify the eviction or persecution of young people or others who are forced to take shelter in them. The attitudes expressed by many members of the public have been extremely negative; ranging from vigorous support for the "Boot Camp" style youth internment centres proposed by the Harris government, to attitudes that mirror the abusive environments that many homeless women and youth are fleeing. This is cruelty and victim-blaming of the worst kind. 

The unfortunate tendency of this society is to base personal worth on arbitrary financial standards; not to mention race, gender, age, and compliance with society's "rules." By the latter, I am not referring to legal statutes. The unnatural and excessive value placed on private property rights in this society; the taboos and outright fear regarding sexuality (The news that this group of homeless youth included several pregnant women sparked a huge outburst of moral outrage); and the attitude that vulnerable people should "put up or shut up," have all been a factor in this situation. The trouble is, these standards have been set, for the most part, by individuals who are safely abstracted from issues such as homelessness, poverty, and abuse. 

However, not all is doom and gloom. There are solutions out there that will recognize the inherit dignity and worth of each person that this society all too often ignores or invalidates. Unlike the Mike Harris doctrine of boot camps and workfare, the City of Toronto has the opportunity and the obligation to implement ideas that are truly innovative and compassionate. THE NEED IS URGENT. 
 

 

BEAR IN MIND THAT THE FOLLOWING PROPOSALS ARE IN VERY ROUGH FORM.

1. The Provincial government has stated that there is no funding available for construction of housing. But what about the buildings that already exist but are sitting vacant? THE CITY OF TORONTO SHOULD ENDEAVOR TO PURCHASE OR OTHERWISE ACQUIRE VACANT PREMISES WITHIN ITS BOUNDARIES.

2.It is true that many abandoned structures may be currently unsafe for human habitation. It is also true that employment opportunities for youth are extremely scarce, and that persons under eighteen no longer qualify for Welfare under new Provincial regulations. These issues can all be dealt with once the City has acquired ownership of disused properties. POTENTIAL TENANTS COULD THEN PARTICIPATE IN tHE REPAIR AND RENOVATION OF THESE PROPERTIES FOR USE AS LOW-COST HOUSING. Participation in such a program MUST be entirely voluntary and participants should receive a living wage for any work performed, as well as union membership and protection. The potential benefit of this could be enormous. 

3. The media coverage of this series of events revealed the level of both ignorance and hostility held by members of the public towards the issues of homelessness, youth, sexuality, and a number of related issues. In addition, the agencies providing services for abused women and youth have been decimated by Provincial funding cuts. Moreover, services are usually provided by individuals who have not had direct personal experience with abuse, homelessness, or poverty. Young people, women, and other oppressed groups could, with assistance from the City, DEVELOP AND IMPLEMENT A PROTOCOL FOR PEER SUPPORT, ADVOCACY, AND EDUCATION FOR EACH OTHER AND MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC. Such an approach is cost-effective, empowering for par icipants, and builds a real sense of community. 

WE ARE IN A CRISIS, PEOPLE. Decision-making and the provision of services in this society have traditionally been bureaucratic and hierarchical. As this in itself contributes to, and may in fact be a primary cause of this situation, the best solution may well be a totally non-traditional approach. This would require considerable courage and political will from City officials. I HEREBY CHALLENGE CITY OF TORONTO OFFICIALS TO OVERCOME TRADITIONAL BARRIERS IN ORDER TO RESOLVE THIS CRISIS. The public may not be initally supportive, but the potential rewards for all of us are enormous. It is necessary for politicians to start showing long-range vision and to invite stakeholders - meaning homeless people, youth, women, victims of abuse, and people of color/immigrants - to play a direct role in decisio n-making and in the implementation of services. 

I am not an expert in either economics or social policy. I am merely an individual with some ideas for what could be an innovative pilot project that I wanted to share with you. I ask you to give them serious consideration. I would welcome your comments. 

 

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