July/August 2001 Issue
Who Is My Neighbour? - Helping the Homeless
By Margaret Dinsdale
The corner of Yonge and Dundas Streets in downtown Toronto is a good place to study the contradictions of wealth and need in Canada.
During the day the sidewalks teem with tourists, business people and students from nearby Ryerson University, moving in and out of the newly revitalized Eaton Centre, the trendy Gap clothing store and several large music stores such as HMV and Sam the Record Man. Restaurants and sidewalk vendors also do a brisk trade in the hustle and bustle of Canada¹s biggest city.
But now it's late in the evening on a balmy spring night and a clutch of young people loiter on the sidewalk. Some of the kids are stoned on drugs or numb from high-alcohol beer. A scruffy couple sits on the pavement with their dog, asking for spare change. A young woman with pink stretch pants and glassy eyes is looking to pick up a trick so that she can pay her rent and the babysitter. Other than the prostitute, it doesn¹t seem that any of them has a home to go to.
Nestled near the Zanzibar strip club and numerous electronics and dollar stores, the grittier aspect of the street, is a sign that reads "Evergreen." The site is one of four operated by the Yonge Street Mission to administer its 30 programs. These programs reach out to people ranging from newborns to seniors, to the homeless, the underhoused, the lonely, or those with addictions or mental health problems. Evergreen is for young adults like the ones here tonight.
Evergreen sees about 1,200 young people in a month, according to a recent issue of Urban Lights, the Mission's newsletter. In it the executive director of the mission, Rick Tobias, ponders how many of them have "suffered greatly at the hands of adults. Most have faced very stark choices. Most are simply trying to survive." He underlines some chilling statistics:
"During the past year, 24 youth associated with Evergreen have been stabbed, four have been pistol-whipped and two young women have been victims of 'disciplinary rape.'" During the past month, nine youth were stabbed, three in a single day. One young man has died. If [this happened] in any other neighbourhood, this city would be engulfed in rage and grief. But among homeless youth, the mayhem takes place unheeded and unchecked."
"I wonder how we as Christians can look in the mirror without wondering what we can do to make a difference," muses Tobias in an interview in his new office at Regent Park. "When Isaiah said that you had to bring the homeless into the house, I don¹t think he meant that every Israelite had to bring a homeless person to their houses. What it does mean is that as a nation we have to take responsibility for the homeless."
The scene outside his office underlines the point: the Regent Park area, a 10-minute streetcar ride from Yonge Street, is a low-income ghetto of plain, low-rise buildings that houses 10,000 people and is sometimes a scene of violence, drug dealing and despair. In the sand of the meagre play area, parents routinely find broken beer and liquor bottles as well as used hypodermic needles and condoms. Nearby are several public parks and the Don Valley, which are home for hundreds of people who sleep "rough" or in tents.
Campaigning Against Poverty and for Low-Income Housing
Poverty, homelessness and affordable housing are once again, temporarily, hot issues in the media. Many pundits say that affordable housing is a first step in helping families who have fallen through the cracks of our society and increasingly populate shelters and subsidized motel rooms.
"Homelessness is a form of violence. It¹s physical torture for people in the face of the overwhelming richness they witness in fellow Canadians," says Gerald Vandezande, a volunteer spokesperson for the Campaign Against Child Poverty, a coalition of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faiths. On May 24 the coalition, in partnership with Campaign 2000, ran a two-page advertisement in the Globe and Mail decrying the state of Canada's children who live in poverty. The ad, fourth in an ongoing series, included endorsements by 400 religious leaders from 17 different faith groups.
Vandezande, author of Justice, Not Just Us: Faith Perspectives and National Priorities (Public Justice Resource Centre, 1999), attends a Christian Reformed church. Homelessness, he says, "is a life without a future for children, some of our most vulnerable citizens."
Housing is part of the problem says Nelson Riis, calling the plight of homeless children "child abuse." A Lutheran who served 21 years as a Member of Parliament, Riis is now president of Canadian Rockport Homes International which has developed modular housing built in a local factory with installed plumbing and electrical wiring that can be delivered to a prepared site for a basic unit cost of $8,000. Rockport has signed social housing deals for the first of 15,000 units with Chile and Mexico but has yet to ink a deal in Canada.
"Both Mexico and Chile are not countries we think of as wealthy, but Chile is building social housing units and Mexico is committed to building 750,000 units a year for the next six years," Riis said in an interview from Vancouver where he is now based. "Churches have to accept responsibility for these situations and make it a priority. Thank goodness they do the work they do with the homeless and those in need, but they ought to lead the charge, to be effective in suggesting solutions for government to follow."
There are many factors involved in Canada's current affordable housing crisis, including (1) the federal government¹s retreat from social housing in the 1990s, making Canada the only industrialized country in the world without a national housing program; (2) the cut to provincial transfer payments in 1995 which forced provinces to slash many programs such as welfare and housing; and (3) boom times in large cities like Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa, which force rents up, especially in Ontario where rent controls were removed in 1998.
Statistics from a 1998 report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) indicate that it takes a minimum household income of $65,000 a year to afford a starter home in Toronto, which is more than 65 percent of families in Canada¹s largest city earn.
John van Nostrand, an architect who has designed prefabricated homes he hopes will be used to house the homeless denizens of Tent City in Toronto, says his own daughter has had a pre-approved mortgage for two years.
"She makes $55,000 a year but cannot find anything she can afford in Toronto," he said. Van Nostrand, an Anglican, has designed housing projects in countries such as Uganda and Kenya. "In Nairobi, there are no homeless. No matter how humble, everyone has somewhere to go."
It's all very fine to exchange a tent for a more solid structure, but there is more that needs to be done, says David Smith, executive director of Evangel Hall, a Presbyterian ministry.
"It depends on how well this is done," he said. "Certainly, to provide a small, self-contained unit that is safe and has its own washroom and kitchen facilities, along with increased safety and not having their stuff get stolen, is an improvement. But we will once more merely be warehousing the poor unless this housing is integrated in the community. It¹s not enough to put people in boxes and leave them there."
Smith thinks that what needs to be created is not just housing but homes where there is care and support, near shopping and green spaces.
"There needs to be recognition that many of these people have mental health and addiction issues," he explained. "They will have bad days and they need to know where to turn for support; and that is done in a caring community."
Recent Improvement But Not Change Overall
A recent report by Human Resources Development Canada claims the rate of children living in poverty "has declined from 20 percent in 1996 to 18.0 percent in 1998" largely due to the Child Tax Benefit, what used to be called the 'baby bonus.' Human Resources admits, however, that its tracking methods are flawed because "they do not describe how [the Benefit] interacts with other economic forces."
However, the overall situation shows no signs of recovery, according to "The Canadian Fact Book on Poverty 2000," a report by the Canadian Council on Social Development. The report is careful to distinguish between "the state of affairs in many Third World countries" from the situation in Canada. "Poverty in this country is a matter not of starving but rather of begging for food at food banks and shelters, and of being shunted from one substandard shelter arrangement to another. For an increasing number of people, it even means living on the street and panhandling. This dreary picture is the result of an unequal distribution of riches rather than a lack of riches."
Faith groups point out that a slight upturn does little to alleviate a 45 percent increase in poverty which they say occurred between 1989 and 1999. Laurel Rothman is national coordinator for Campaign 2000, an anti-poverty campaign supported in large part by the Canadian Council of Churches, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, and Citizens for Public Justice.
Campaign 2000 took its name from a motion passed unanimously by the House of Commons in 1989 promising to try to end child poverty in this country by 2000. Campaign 2000 formed to address what government and businesses can do to help.
"The government's report only looks at the trends during two years, but the fact is that we¹ve gone from one in seven of all children in this country living in poverty to one in five," said Rothman.
"During that time we had a very strong labour force with low unemployment and yet the poverty figures are still very high."
One contributing factor is that minimum wage levels across the country have remained too low, according to Rothman and Pat Nixon, a Baptist minister and executive director of the Mustard Seed, a ministry in Calgary.
"Everyone thinks that Calgary has an oil well in every McDonald's parking lot, but that is not true," Nixon said. "People also think that Toronto has most of the needy people in the country. We have seen an increase of 30 percent per year for the past five years, which translates into 800 people per day that we serve, and many of these people are from the Maritimes or British Columbia. But even if we help people to get back on their feet and get a job, they can work all day for $5.50 an hour, the minimum wage in Alberta, and they are still going to be hungry and have no place to go."
Faith Communities Must Join Discussions
"Faith communities represent a wide swath of Canadians, and I think it is right for them to contribute to ethical and moral discussions, especially in this particular situation," says Laurel Rothman. "But they need to base any recommendations on sound information."
Rick Tobias agrees, especially with the large issues in Toronto like the redevelopment of the waterfront or the Olympic bid, which has some people fearful that low-income people will have even a more difficult time as was the case in Atlanta, Georgia and Sydney, Australia.
"You can't sit on the outside and throw darts. We have to engage government," he said. "It is incumbent upon us to know who our local politicians are and to communicate with them. If we get the Olympics, then everyone in Ontario should be writing to local, provincial and federal politicians and saying, 'Congratulations. We support this and will be down there volunteering. By the way, we need 10,000 units of social housing for the people who will get displaced by this.' I think every church ought to concern itself with issues like this."
"We are much worse off with less government supports and the closing of many programs," says David Smith. "But one major problem is that technology is leaving people behind. We have lost manual labour jobs that are used to give many people dignified, gainful work. They have been replaced by machines and computers."
So while reporters and photographers dash off in all directions to interview another homeless person or review numerous published reports on poverty, the number of people looking for help and the complexity of their problems have grown.
More Than a Meal and a Bed
Traditionally when the homeless population was mostly older men with alcohol problems or other addictions, street ministry was usually limited to a hot meal and a bed for the night. While the numbers of homeless people and the complexity of their problems have grown, ministries such as the Yonge Street Mission and Mustard Seed have been finding new and innovative faith-based solutions that provide hope and support for families in areas of need, and for the youth, women and children who increasingly come to the door for help.
For example, the Yonge Street Mission¹s new site at Regent Park, sponsored initially by the City of Toronto, is dedicated to community economic development by providing jobs at the on-site thrift store as well as computer training for children and other programs.
One major problem for low-income and homeless people is lack of access to financial institutions; many banks discourage welfare recipients from having an account, forcing them to go to cheque cashing stores that charge up to $30 to cash a $500 welfare cheque, according to Rick Tobias.
"Not just that, but soon there won¹t be any bank branches in this neighbourhood, only the Money Mart," he said. "I wouldn¹t want to be a bank president with shareholders yelling at me because share dividends aren't high enough and others yelling because they aren't charitable enough. Banks are the single largest contributor to the United Way [of Greater Toronto]. Conversely, banks are leaving low-income communities. My problem with a discussion like this is, do we want to make the banks bad guys because they do that, or are they good guys because they do lots of stuff?"
Rather than get into an adversarial relationship with the big banks, Tobias is getting them to help in other ways. Yonge Street Mission is starting a cheque cashing club with the help of the Royal Bank and will charge only about $5 to cash a cheque. TD Securities funds a computer lab for 8- to 13-year-olds, most of whom are Muslim or Hindu, in Regent Park. The agency collects donated, used computers, reconditions them and gives them to families for a cost of about $300 each. Internet provider AOL provides a course in Internet skills and etiquette and gives graduates a 10-year certificate for free access.
"This prepares kids for the world ahead of them," says Tobias. Many of Yonge Street Mission's other programs also aim at economic development.
Teaching computer literacy, marketable job skills and offering pre-employment support help people become self-supporting and get into housing or prevent their becoming homeless in the first place.
Homeless people in Canada still need emergency shelter, hot meals and fellowship, and many Christian groups are meeting those needs. But to reverse the trend requires different approaches, like those mentioned above. Other groups, such as Calgary¹s Mustard Seed Mission, are also developing unique programs to go beyond the status quo. Mustard Seed is working on music, arts, and even health and fitness programs. Many secular agencies get most of their funding from the government, but Mustard Seed gets 80 percent of its funding from private sources such as business, individuals and churches. Nonetheless Nixon still thinks that various levels of government need to reinvest in social housing and to provide support for the many homeless or underhoused people who have serious mental health or addiction problems.
"I can look at Tony who came here from the Maritimes with nothing," Nixon said. "We gave him help and now he has a job and a home. About 50 percent of the people we help are like Tony; they need temporary assistance. What I¹m concerned about is the other 50 percent who need long-term support in the community. We believe that the community as a whole needs to participate, including government."
One mission has boldly abandoned traditional programs such as food banks, as well as any reliance on government funding or programs, and completely redefined its role as missionaries in the city. Ken Little, executive director of the Toronto City Mission, lives near St. Jamestown, a collection of high-rise towers that house 20,000 people and boast the densest population in the country.
"We took studies done by the City of Toronto and targeted the three neediest areas of the city," he said. "The people who work as missionaries live in the communities they serve. The three major indicators of families at risk are lone-parent families, social assistance and subsidized housing. We can't do anything about social assistance and subsidized housing, but we can support lone-parent families. We have focused on a need that we can help with. We realize that the kingdom of God is bigger than we."
The missionary teams befriend people in the community and figure out what is the greatest need, whether it is after-school programs or lone-parent support groups, then seek partnerships with churches and other area organizations to provide space and support.
"We believe that God tells us to treat our neighbours as ourselves," he said. "When you have state social workers who don¹t live in the neighbourhood and have life-long clients, it undercuts what God wants for us. You need to come alongside people and care for them."
What's Good For All
Rick Tobias thinks that the solutions ultimately lie in getting individuals to consider what is good for all people, not just themselves.
"We live in a society that focuses on 'me and mine,' he explained. "Everyone is saying, 'What are my rights as a micro-society? What are my rights as a victim, a prisoner, woman, child, cultural group, whatever?' And what we have lost is asking questions about what is the good for all. How do you change 30 million Canadians to get them thinking, 'Gee, I wonder what's good for the next person?'"
"I'm a believer in faith-based organizations that have built-in caring, that are not businesses or bureaucracies," says David Smith. "We are well suited to help but not alone. We've seen a shifting of responsibility from government to faith groups and others, but we need help. I just think about the millions of people in Toronto and how if everyone gave just $25 each to their favourite charity, the difference it would make."
Despite the differences of opinions about solutions and with all the talk of political engagement, Pat Nixon likes to remind himself why he is there.
"Ultimately, all this is about worship," he said. "Everything we do here, the meals, counseling, programs, it¹s all worship to God as much as on Sunday. The bottom line is to shine a light in the community, to reach out to the poor."
And Ken Little thinks mission is within everyone's grasp, not just those on the front lines in the cities.
"You get to know your neighbours; it is a fundamental calling," he said. "When you get to know your neighbour, small, practical expressions of love happen spontaneously. Say you can't afford babysitting, well 'I¹ll do it for you.' Or car pooling for people who need a ride. The grand stuff is important, but every Christian needs to be yeast in society. It doesn't matter where you live to reach out with compassion."
Margaret Dinsdale is a freelance writer in Toronto.