People on Streets

People on Streets

While the rest of us sheltered from this month's bitter cold by stepping inside our front doors, I learned of a man whose home was a lonely tent in a patch of greenspace near Willowdale's Gustav Cres. Just after dark last Sunday, as Toronto braced for its worst snowstorm in decades, someone set his tent on fire.

I heard about it from a neighbouring homeowner, Audrey, who had befriended Mario (not his real name). She helped him find work cleaning out eavestroughs for a few hundred dollars, $100 of which he used to buy himself a cot at Canadian tire; Audrey added a pillow. Luckily, he wasn't there when the fire happened.

At one time he'd had a wife, a job, and a warm place to live. This is his first winter out in the cold.

"He's a nice guy, wasn't bothering anyone," Audrey told me. "He's had a lot of bad luck. He was just trying to exist."

A few other neighbours took a less charitable approach, with at least one taunting him. But some of those same community members who didn't want him there are part of the reason he had nowhere else to go.

Mario is a prime candidate for the supportive housing project the City was planning to open in December on the southeast corner of Cummer and Willowdale, near where he set up his tent. Instead, those 59 prefabricated units sit in a TTC parking lot. The project is indefinitely on hold at the behest of Willowdale MPP Stan Cho, who is pandering to the wishes of a small but loud group of residents.

Supportive housing is City Council’s best attempt to provide a permanent place to live, in the form of tiny apartment units, for a small percentage of the 8,000 people now living on the street or in parks, ravines and shelters. Each project has built-in support services, mostly on site, to help people turn their lives around.

"If he had a proper place to stay and food to eat, he would get a job," Audrey told me about Mario. "He wants to work."

Toronto is building these units across the city as quickly as possible. Although homelessness has been a problem for decades, an extreme rise in rents, coupled with the pandemic, has made the situation much more desperate for a lot more people like Mario.

This urgency prompted the City to ask the Province for a Ministerial Zoning Order to expedite all such projects. These were granted everywhere else in Toronto, including a large one in Doug Ford’s own riding.

In Willowdale, our MPP intervened against the project after a group calling itself the "Voices of Willowdale" stirred up angry opposition.

You can tell what you need to know about this group from their "Save Our Park" lawn signs. The site in question has never been a park. It has sometimes been used for Tai Chi, but we are keeping enough open space to still accommodate such uses. And for anyone who cares about real parkland in this area, as I do, a large new park is being created a few blocks away.

I'm sure some of those with the signs were bamboozled by the false information and stoking of fears, most of it from toxic postings on social media. I received lots of nearly identical emails from those who got their information that way.

They’d typically start by referring to the Cummer project as a homeless shelter – something completely different from supportive housing. There was talk of an impending neighbourhood crime wave - without any basis, as a visit to the neighbourhoods around other sites could have established.

One of the more absurd contentions – right there on the lawn sign – was that the project "fails Toronto's homeless." Among the alleged failings: poor public transit (it's at the intersection of two streets with bus routes); there's no nearby community centre (one is being built a few hundred metres away); there are no grocery stores in the area (one is expected to be going in a few hundred metres away).

Outside of this group, some residents made excellent suggestions – that we focus on seniors at this location, which is adjacent to affordable seniors' housing, for example – and I think I have been able to incorporate these ideas. I'm sure there are other good people who are apprehensive about the change and could have expressed concerns for us to address. Unfortunately, many community members got swept up in the deliberate falsehoods and never found the voice to speak for themselves.

Through 40 years and twelve elections, I’ve known the real voices of Willowdale to be generally kind, and generous. Your approach to complex and difficult issues has always been thoughtful. It's heartbreaking that 59 people who could have been housed continue to be homeless. I'm disturbed that this angry group claims to speak for Willowdale, and that our Member of Provincial Parliament gives them legitimacy.

If you're as offended as I am by that, speak up. And I’d be glad to hear from you.

- John