Yes, it is our job to feed our neighbour’s child.

Once again, a typical Conservative statement of values (with apologies to Hugh Segal): Minister James Moore says “Well, obviously nobody wants kids to go to school hungry. Certainly we want to make sure that kids go to school full bellied, but is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast? Empowering families with more power and resources so that they can feed their own children is, I think, a good thing. Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”*

Wrong, I say. The government is us.  And it is our job to help nourish our neighbour’s kids – right here in Roncesvalles Village.  It’s all very well to talk about “empowering families” so they can feed their own children.  Nice and vague.  That’s a fairly typical right-wing perspective.  It lets them off the hook.  But how do you ‘empower’ alcoholic, or gambling-addicted or mentally ill parents, in a way that guarantees their child will be fed.  And that child needs far more than feeding in any case.

If not feeding the child is one end of this perspective, building bigger prisons is the other end. I think of that as punishing an already wounded child who has become a still wounded adult.  Increased funding for prisons, cutbacks on funding for vulnerable youth programs, housing, etc.

Practical reality suggests strongly that as a society, we’d save a fortune if we provided supportive housing at $25-31/day, instead of mere shelters, at $69 a bed.  But reality is not what conservatism is about.  These days it’s about critical-judgmental perspectives, selfishness.

People do not become homeless because they made ‘bad choices’.   Or because they  refused to memorize their timetables.  Oh they’ve probably made some mistakes along the way, but who among us has not?  To dismiss the lifelong impact of their childhood experience is ignorance of the worst sort.

“Bad choices” are the only choices you have left when “wiser” options have been precluded by your actual ‘life story’.  You get to make ‘good choices’ when you’ve had a childhood of relative privilege: unconditional love, education, security, a good vocabulary, an ability to communicate, to charm people.  And a soul that’s relatively peaceful.

No, people end up without permanent addresses – or in extreme poverty — because of ‘stuff’ that has happened to them.  Stuff that makes for nightmares, not to mention an inability to concentrate – or perhaps even a chorus of voices and noises in the head that would drive most of us to distraction.

Take my homeless ‘senior’ friend D, who spends a lot of time in Roncy.  By the time he was fourteen, he’d already been precluded from the possibility of inner peace.    ‘Career development’ would have seemed a joke.  With his drunken father alternating between his – or his little brother’s – bed at night, he couldn’t take his living nightmare any longer and left home.   So at fourteen, he had to not only continue raising himself, but also figure out on his own how to deal with all the crap that life would throw at him.

Was that a ‘bad choice’?  “Should-haves” are easy to say about someone else, when we can’t imagine what their daily life is like.   Surely it doesn’t take that much imagination to guess at the agonizing life he had to live at times.  Not to mention his state of mind and emotions as a child.

My father might not have been the greatest dad for me, but he never crawled into any kid’s bed. He certainly never abused anyone, and he did set a conventional ‘good example’.   He regularly said, “There but for the grace of god, go I.”

As a Christian, when he said, “Judge not that ye be not judged,” he meant it.   He believed in compassion and charity, and lived it – more or less.   He was what selfish conservatives call, generally with a snear and a voice dripping with sarcasm, a ‘liberal’.  As if it meant giving away the family jewels.  My friend D would have appreciated a father like that.

The point is that anyone growing up in a conventional family is not in a position to judge a homeless person.  So why do I often hear the question, “Why should I pay for some else’s bad choices or mistakes?”  Just ignorance.   People aren’t homeless because of bad choices.  They are homeless because of circumstances beyond their control.

Many are homeless because of mental illness, addictions and other ailments, and on average, homeless people die in their forties.  I think it’s also fair to say that many are homeless because of official government policies which, after all, reflect us.  They are homeless because, for starters, there aren’t enough homes.

(Some things you might not have realized): “Michael Shapcott* notes that in 1982, all levels of
government funded 20,450 new social housing units. By
1995, the number dropped to approximately 1,000, with
a modest increase to 4,393 by 2006 (Wellesley Institute,
2008)”  (I recommend checking out

“Supportive housing programs can also reduce the costs associated with health care and the justice system. One study found that investing in supportive housing costs $13,000 to $18,000 per year; in comparison, traditional institutional responses like prisons and psychiatric hospitals cost $66,000 to $120,000 per year.”

We already know from experiments in a number of cities with “homes first” policies, that money is saved in shelter and emergency costs, with some shelters shutting down through lowered demand. But I believe it’s becoming obvious that general improvements and cost savings would be even more dramatic, if we went “all the way” as a society, and provided not only homes, but professional support as well as all basic needs.   It just makes sense.

Of all the reasons that exist for poverty and homelessness, surely we could eliminate the most significant one: regressive policies, a byproduct of social attitudes that need changing.  This will only happen if enough of us keep speaking up and pointing out what should be obvious.



** Canadian activist and   Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation, Wellesley Institute

Posted in affordable housing, compassion, homelessness, Inclusion, Roncesvalles Village | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“It’s a great neighbourhood”

How often, since we moved into Roncy two decades ago, have I heard people wax eloquent about what a wonderful neighbourhood we live in.  And how many have moved here because it was a ‘great neighbourhood’?  I’ve heard some say, “It’s always been great”.   Probably debatable, but I’ll keep an open mind.

I’ve often thought about the concept of a great neighbourhood because it was important to me as a real estate agent.  It helped me find good locations for buyers once I had a sense of the kind of neighbourhood that appealed to them.

But it’s one of those concepts that means different things to different people.   Often, people attracted to Bloor West Village were not attracted to Roncesvalles Village.  People who found Roncy ‘messy, chaotic’, would describe Bloor West Village as warm and friendly.  People who found BWV ‘cold and conservative’ would say of Roncy that it was warm and friendly.

Recently, in my role as ‘fearless analyst’, I’ve been asking myself “What are the ingredients in this ‘great neighbourhood’.

The ‘Jane Bunnett’ evening at Revue Cinema the other night, illustrated beautifully some of the things that make Roncy great.  The participants – the great clarinetist herself, the producer of the moving documentary about Bunnett, the Revue volunteers – all live in the neighbourhood, love it, and express that love in all the ways they support the theatre they love.  It was creative and generous, hard work.

It struck me at some point that the people who love the Revue, also love the community.  Expressing one’s love for the community in the ways we do, is exactly what makes it a great place.   And the ‘neighbourhood ways’ are infectious.  If you’ve recently moved into the ‘nabe’, you suddenly find yourself willing to take the risk of smiling at a stranger.  They smile back.

Sooner or later it dawns on you that we must contribute in other ways too – that we  can’t expect the same people to keep knocking themselves out to give us the pleasure of an amazing neighbourhood.

When  people are looking for a place to settle, perhaps raise children, enjoy their  ‘spare time’, like their neighbours, they explore a variety of neighbourhoods.   They are tentative, wondering, trying to pick up a vibe.  It’s tough, trying to make that choice.  And the clues that we read are in the small and large things we notice about what’s actually going on.

Small thing: more people smile at us – or even talk to us — here, even though we’re strangers.  Big thing: A wonderful, world-famous musician who’s lived in the neighbourhood for over 30 years, willing to give of herself to help the Revue.  Amazingly, the producer of the documentary about Bunnett’s life – also lives in the neighbourhood.  There’s Ellen and the other Program Committee members, who do knock themselves out.  They not only organized the event and the advertising, but served the Cuban food we enjoyed.

We notice more eccentricity in this place, less in others.   Eccentricity implies a level of acceptance of ‘differences’.  We hear rumours that there are lots of writers, musicians, urban planners, living here.  That sounds interesting.

We hear that this neighbourhood has more of a ‘compassionate’ streak than a lot of neighbourhoods.  We notice events like a fund-raiser to help the owner of a pet store that burned, or to create some kind of memorial to a popular pan-handler who died.

You notice that the Home Hardware store is a little different here, in that the owner lives in the neighbourhood, and people call him Len.   And Sheila, who owns Another Story bookstore (one of the most popular and respected in the city) on Roncesvalles, is a compassionate activist in the community.  You begin to wonder, is anybody not?

But let’s not romanticize a neighbourhood that also contains all the flaws and weaknesses common to humanity: people who are uncomfortable smiling at strangers; people who seldom give of themselves; people who only moved in as an investment in trendiness; people who express a chronic cynicism – no doubt because of their own growing up years.  Attitudes spread.  I wonder which ones will win out here. I hope we all consciously keep spreading the currently dominant Roncy culture – the one that values inclusion, acceptance of differences.

Until I moved into Roncesvalles Village, I had not in my life lived anywhere more than seven years.  My affection for this ‘village’ has been a slow and steady growth. It will be twenty years next May.  I figure in my old age I’ll be able to enjoy most days somewhere in walking distance (Jane Jacobs is looking down, smiling in approval!)  If I am unwell, there’s always St. Joe’s.  For aesthetic pleasure, there’s the park and the lake.  As long as I can walk.  And when I can’t walk any more,  knowing this village, I bet someone will bring me soup!

Posted in community, Inclusion, neighbourhood, Roncesvalles Village, urban life, world class city | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Good-bye Alternative Grounds

Well, no chrome and glass, but no café either.

As it turns out, the deal fell through, and Alternative Grounds is no more, its doors will close tonight.   Its lease will not be renewed at the end of the month, and the ‘regulars’ have no idea where they will go tomorrow.

This place has produced published poets, award-winning novelists, lifelong friendships, marriages, (divorce), and even, perhaps, a new social movement.

At this very moment, I am seated with a friend who began to cry, recalling how she and her husband – sitting next to me – met here.

An email ‘sign-up’ sheet sits at the cash, filling up quickly by anxious hands of those who are loathe to say a permanent good-bye.  I am sure we will meet again in a new context.  This is a very special crowd.

Posted in Alternative Grounds, coffee, community, friendship, Roncesvalles Village, urban life, world class city | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Alternative Grounds – and stuff that matters

To think that Alternative Grounds could have been wiped out, perhaps transformed into a dramatically modern glass and chrome dress shop, or maybe a high end store specializing in silk purses made from sow’s ears!  Heaven forbid.  That would be adding insult to injury.

Sad that we are ‘losing our past’ and original owner Linda Burnside.  Grateful that the new owner is, we hear, ‘sympathetic’ to what A.G. stands for. And what, pray tell, is that, you might ask?

Well, it’s about expressing our values through the way we live every day — knowing that where we buy our coffee matters, makes us more conscious of the other things that do actually make a difference.  That everything we do, every choice we make, affects others.

It’s about how we relate to each other as human beings, understanding that even when we disagree, we can still love, each in his own way.  It’s about inclusion, versus exclusion;  strangers invited to sit; fund-raisers for people and events we care about;  exploring ideas freely, knowing the next stranger you include may change your life.  It’s about ‘being there’ for people – and trusting they are there for you.

It’s about knowing that ‘customers’ and ‘servers’ are equal treasures, and they have  much to learn from each other.   It’s about knowing that we are so much more than roles,  that Alternative Grounds is so much more than a café.  And that we are so lucky to have found it.

Posted in Alternative Grounds, coffee, community, compassion, Inclusion, Roncesvalles Village, world class city | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Housing, dignity, caring + sharing

As I did my seven-minute stroll to my favourite café this morning, I passed no less than three ‘homeless’ people I didn’t recognize.   If you spend a lot of time ‘out in the  neighbourhood’, you recognize the regulars, chat with them, get to know them a little.  You notice new ones, wonder where they came from, why, what’s their story.

One of them was a woman partially hidden in the shade of some bushes, trying to brush her teeth.  It struck me as a valiant attempt to maintain personal standards.  A little self-respect, in such circumstances is important.

Only the morning before, I had noticed a fellow washing his face at a leaking outdoor faucet.  I’d been surprised at his efforts – the faucet couldn’t have been a foot above the ground.   For a split second I wondered why he bothered.   And then I was disgusted at my own thought.  I know better.

Another chap I’d never seen before  is shuffling down Roncesvalles Avenue as I write.  Slowly down the street, then slowly up the street.  He may be living the impact of alcohol abuse, or even brain problems from anti-psychotic medicine – sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.   This fellow paused near a smoker and pointed at her cigarettes.  She gave him one, then he pointed at her lighter.  We’re wondering why he didn’t speak.

It’s a chilly morning, and I find myself wondering how they’ll manage when winter comes.  I have a repeating fantasy of winning a lottery and buying a home in the neighbourhood, where perhaps a half dozen would share the space, in some kind of ‘supportive housing’ arrangement.  Yet I wonder if that would even be legal.  And can you just imagine the “nimby” reaction.

My fantasy moves in the direction of trying to stir up some compassion, and perhaps organizing workshops for the potential team of neighbours, illustrating how their support and generosity could help transform the lives of these people.  They would learn why they need not be so afraid of the ‘mentally ill’.  They might even learn how to help during a crisis or a ‘psychotic episode’.  Perhaps they could even do a little fund-raising occasionally.

I remember the ‘sponsoring groups’ that formed around 1980, to help the famous “boat people” of southeast Asia.  A group would include people with different skills or efforts to offer – from chauffeuring, to help with shopping, or learning, or just providing money.  We called ours a “boat people committee” for lack of a better label.

Our work started months before “our” boat people arrived, with learning about their culture, diet and a bit of their recent history.  The day they arrived, we had a volunteer translator available, a driver, a temporary home (mine).   Their first few years in Toronto were made much easier than it is for most refugees, because of our support.

I can imagine similar neighbourhood teams forming around supportive housing.  “Success” would mean the once virtually disabled residents would eventually become independent – enabled.   What a dream.

Posted in compassion, homelessness, mental illness, Roncesvalles Village, stigma, urban life, volunteer, world class city | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Affordable housing in Roncesvalles Village?

Sometimes in this life we get the chance to make amends.   And these days, I sure feel like making amends on the issue of affordable housing.

It might have been ten years ago that we on the street banded together to protest against a neighbour’s plan to create  a single – yes, one itty-bitty – basement apartment.  It’s hard to believe now that we felt so threatened.  And it’s hard to face the fact that I was contributing to the desperate housing shortage of today.  Since then I have moved a long way from those feelings.  I am about to create a basement apartment myself, and urge others to do the same.

Meanwhile, people keep coming to Toronto – something like 50,000 to 100,000  every year – pushing prices up for both buyers and renters, as the NIMBY crowd keeps the supply down.  As more and more people depart, looking for more affordable accommodation, I’ve realized that I had been in denial – and certainly wasn’t thinking logically, thoughtfully or compassionately.

If we want to just do arithmetic, the number of housing units being built currently, while large,  is nowhere near what is needed – and the number of units needed keeps increasing.

Anyway, I’ve had my consciousness raised.  I am a convert and I hope to convert others.   We need as many new affordable apartments as we can squeeze into the neighbourhood.   With my mortgage paid off, a survivable income, and kids grown up and gone, I am lucky that I don’t need a basement apartment.  However our high, dry, spacious basement cries out for one in the circumstances.   I’d feel guilty if I didn’t do this.

I urge my fellow Torontonians to do the same – and to welcome even more.  There is of course still a place for occasionally resisting a development.   But let’s leave behind the silly reasons like not wanting shade on our garden.  Or “preserving the streetscape”.

And forget about that old prejudice against tenants.  Anyone who can afford to rent even a basement apartment in this neighbourhood is probably fairly civilized.

Housing is a human right – but you’d never know it in Toronto.

Posted in affordable housing, compassion, densification, gentrification, Roncesvalles Village, urban life, world class city | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Alternative to shooting? ….. Compassion?

If you pay any attention to the news, you may have heard that an 18-year-old boy, Sammy,  was shot to death by a Toronto police officer a few weeks ago.  He was alone in a streetcar.  With a 3” knife.  I guess they thought that heavy, iron streetcar couldn’t contain him.

The same week in Montreal, police in a 20-hour ‘standoff’ finally convinced a fellow to hand himself over – unshot, undead!  What alternative method did they use?  Talk.

So what do we know about Sammy?  We know he was jobless, homeless, 18, in conflict with his father over pot. Witnesses say he had a knife in one hand, and his penis in the other, with a not-here look in his eyes.   All told, sounds like an obvious ‘psychotic episode’.  His family say he had no history of mental illness.  But distress more often arises around this age.  Which is why we more often see a breakdown  occur in young people who’ve gone away to university, leaving home for the first time and beginning more intimidating academic life minus normal supports.

From what we know about mental illness, Sammy could have been just entering a state of psychosis, brought on by the stress he was feeling.  He certainly had more than enough to cope with.  An emergency response team could no doubt have helped him, but apparently they don’t work after 10 pm in Toronto.

On the Toronto Police Service website, on “Mental Health Issues”, we find what appears to be ‘advice’ on how to handle such situations, with links to further information.  It appears optional.  And the implications are opposite to the comments of a police trainer during one past inquest.   “You shoot until the threat is gone,” he said and “there is no magic-bullet alternative to firearms” **  Pretty simplistic.

I loved Ombudsman Marin’s comments about recommendations from past inquests being virtually identical over the past 20 years, and about the definition of insanity being to keep repeating the same behavior and expect different outcomes***.  Let’s hope something really meaningful comes out of his investigation.  Like clear new procedural guidelines – not only for handling someone in mental distress, but for assessing situations from point A.  And how about new training curricula that include significant time on understanding the varied populations the police are serving and protecting.   They need to know they are not here to protect merely ‘middle-class-white-4th-generation-anglo-Canadians-in perfect mental-and-physical-health’.   No.  More likely, anything but!

The horror story here is that there was no one to protect the victims from the ‘protectors’.   Is it possibly because Toronto Police Services are immature, like Toronto?  Cities take time to mature, and so do their police.  It’s a sign of maturity to be able to admit you are wrong, just as it is a sign of maturity to be able to laugh at yourself, to take yourself less seriously.  Are we finally, in Toronto, beginning to enter that era in our history?

I welcome argument!

Posted in compassion, mental illness, Ontario Ombudsman, police shooting, social change, Toronto, Toronto Police, world class city | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment