The opponents to the City of Toronto’s men’s shelter on Runnymede said it best.
When Councillor Nunziata asked Tanya Connors, a deputant at the June 23rd 2016 Community Development and Recreation Committee meeting, what she thought about making shelter approvals conditional on bringing new services to the neighbourhood, she said, “It feels like I’m being bribed.”
The Council motion that ultimately approved the Men’s Shelter at 731 Runnymede included the longest list of conditions yet seen in a Toronto shelter approval. The community was promised a “York/Weston/Junction Strategy” to improve economic development, access to City and social services, and land use planning; a Safe Growth plan; improvements to a nearby underpass; improved TTC service; a Community Health Officer; support for the development of a new BIA; and a request to the Toronto Central LHIN for a new community health or primary care clinic.
What does this have to do with the shelter?
Emergency shelters are designed to provide short-term accommodation to homeless people from across the City. The services shelter residents need most – a bed, food, counseling, and crucially, help getting income supports and finding a home – are provided by the shelter itself. The only other service they really need is TTC to get to and from the shelter as they go to appointments or their job.
The main point is that shelter residents are making use of an emergency service – the shelter – until they can move on. Unless they happen to settle in the immediate neighbourhood, they will receive no benefit from the new clinic, a strengthened BIA or improved local services.
Community benefits may have nothing to do with the shelter. But they have become a political necessity that demonstrate the local councillor was not “letting a shelter in” without a fight, and was able to negotiate some concessions in return. As one Councillor put it, “If we’re asking the community to accept homeless people, let’s give them something good as well.”
The discriminatory premise
Can everyone see how discriminatory this premise is? Could we imagine a Councillor saying, “If we’re asking the community to accept black people [or Indigenous people, or any other group that has endured discrimination], let’s give them something good as well?”
However, the homeless people have become so stigmatized that the discrimination seems normal. So for the record, let us affirm:
- Neither housing nor services can be excluded from any neighbourhood simply because they serve homeless people. Doing so is a human rights violation. The Ontario Human Rights Commission explicitly recognizes that shelters serve Code-protected groups (OHRC, Policy on human rights and rental housing, 2009)
- Homeless people are recognized in Toronto’s Housing Charter, which affirms that “all residents, regardless of whether they rent or own a home, or are homeless, have an equal stake and voice in Toronto’s future.”
- Toronto’s Shelter By-law permits shelters as-of-right in all parts of the city, provided they are located on an arterial road, are at least 250 meters from another shelter, and meet the normal zoning requirements (height, setbacks and so on) for the site.
A better approach to community benefits
Toronto City Council’s approach to shelter approvals do nothing to help homeless people. But they are also bad planning.
Community benefits are the very things that ought to be the subject of broad community consultation, and in many cases already are. The TTC and the City’s Parks and Recreation, Social Development, Planning Department and other divisions already have, or are working on, city-wide plans and neighbourhood strategies.
Why side-track this careful planning with motions created hurriedly and apparently at random on the floor of the Community Development and Recreation Committee? And why should these random motions – all of which cost money, and in some cases lots of money – rob funding from initiatives that would actually help Toronto’s lowest income residents?
A better approach to shelter approvals
HomeComing has many suggestions for improving the shelter approvals process – too many for this blog. But they are all start with a simple idea: homeless people have the same rights as everyone else. And they belong everywhere.