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Gentrification and Displacement in Toronto’s Downtown East

Friday, November 13, 2015 10:49
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Street Patrol fights back

A group of Indigenous women, two-spirit people, and allies are patrolling the streets of Toronto’s Downtown East. Three nights a week the group walks the streets of their neighbourhood between Church, Parliament, Dundas, and Shuter, streets located on traditional Mississauga-Anishinabek, Wendat, and Haudenosaunee territory. Together they hand out water bottles, sandwiches, drug-use kits, and clothing, informing the community about recent acts of violence and police activity. When people are sexually assaulted in the neighbourhood, the group lets the community know; when women and trans people go missing in the city, street patrol*sets out to look for them.

A powerful expression of care and collectivity in a neighbourhood that has been home to Toronto’s low-income and street-involved people for decades, the street patrol initiative challenges the city’s discriminatory policing initiatives and our governing bodies’ growing disregard for Canada’s most vulnerable urban communities.

Although the members of this group are all too aware of the specific barriers and injustices people in the community encounter every day, they fear life is about to become even more complicated. The neighbourhood faces a rapidly approaching momentous shift that has been looming for years now: the gentrification of the Downtown East.

Toronto is in the midst of a long-term housing and shelter crisis. Another winter is upon us and shelters are operating above 90 percent occupancy, over 90,000 households are on a waitlist for affordable housing, and the loss of shelter beds in the downtown core continues at an alarming rate (Toronto has lost three shelters since April, and in the past fifteen years, the city has lost over 1,000 shelter beds). The real effects of this crisis are urgent and tragic: in January 2015, four homeless men died due to extreme weather conditions, and since 1985, a reported 740 people have died from homelessness in Toronto.

Federal cuts to social welfare investments are undoubtedly contributing to this crisis. Over the past twenty-five years, the Canadian population has grown by 30 percent but annual federal investments in affordable housing have dropped 43 percent. If we continue on this path, Canada will have lost 22 percent of its federally subsidized housing by 2017. The province of Ontario has felt these cuts acutely: between 1995 and 2007, Ontario welfare benefits were cut by 50 percent and disability by 22 percent, pushing an estimated 67,000 Ontario families out of their housing rentals. The lack of affordable housing puts even more pressure on the need for safe space and shelters; unsurprisingly, shelter use in Toronto has risen 11 percent since 2011.

Despite the city’s 2013 promise to keep capacity of shelters below 90 percent and build more affordable housing, Toronto is moving forward with the George Street Revitalization (GSR) plan, an urban redevelopment initiative that will result in the projected loss of over 440 shelter beds and, many fear, the forced relocation of hundreds of low-income and street-involved people from the area. Of particular concern is the city’s plan to demolish George Street’s Seaton House, a 543-bed shelter for men. The shelter will be rebuilt as a long-term care home, a 100-bed emergency shelter, assisted living residence, and community service hub.

The GSR plan is described as a step towards a successful city-wide housing-first model, meaning the plan will prioritize affordable and subsidized housing solutions. But details as to whether the lost beds will be replaced, where and when they will be available, as well as who will be allowed to access them, are not known.

More broadly, the plan aims to balance the competing pressures of a growing housing and shelter crisis and a “rising real estate market” in neighbouring communities. Despite this commitment, private development firms have certain economic advantages when pursuing their interests: residents are already being pushed out of affordable rentals and rooming houses, with no adequate alternatives to turn to.   

Housing-first initiatives are typically applauded by both cities and social service organizations as an economically viable long-term solution to homelessness; shelters provide a band-aid solution to the systemic issue of chronic homelessness and rely too heavily on tax payers’ dollars, while affordable and integrated housing options for long-term shelter users present viable social investments that can encourage economic independence.

But saying you are taking up a housing-first strategy does not justify the relocation of those living in poorly maintained “affordable” apartments, nor the destruction of overcrowded shelters in the downtown core. Because affordable housing is already so scarce in Toronto, a housing-first model requires new economic regulations and policies: some councillors recommend that the city require 10 percent of all new buildings constructed in the downtown be affordable, while housing first models recommend boosting rent-geared-to-income subsidies so that street-involved and low-income people can still live in the areas where the services and supports they need to survive are located.

Even if these recommendations were actually enacted, the need for adequate shelter space would not disappear. Emergency beds are still a necessary lifeline for people struggling with homelessness due to certain barriers and realities—like substance use, poverty, mental illness, disability, racism, domestic violence—that even well-implemented affordable housing options cannot solve on their own.

Canada’s Indigenous communities are particularly susceptible to homelessness. Colonial legacies of intergenerational trauma along with the realities of poverty and racism limit opportunities and create impediments for Indigenous folks attempting to become or remain stably housed. Here things are no different: since the 1793 founding of York, later renamed Toronto after the Kahniakenhaka word “tkranto,” this city has been actively forgetting its colonial roots and pushing its Indigenous population out. According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, only 1 percent of Toronto’s population identifies as Aboriginal, but a 2013 Street Needs assessment found that 16 percent of the homeless population identifies as Aboriginal. Despite this over-representation, which undoubtedly corresponds to the legacy of settler colonialism in Toronto, the city’s revitalization projects are failing to meet the specific needs of the Downtown East (DTE) community. For groups like street patrol, our colonial past very much informs the care and effort that goes into this work, as well as the discrimination and neglect experienced by Toronto’s street-involved and precariously housed population. As Sigrid Kneve, a founding member of the group, said:

“I believe that this is my territory, like all of Turtle Island and [it’s] not our way to have people outside of the circle. If I see someone falling behind, it doesn’t make me happy, it doesn’t make our ancestors happy because that’s not our way. That was never our way, to have people suffering and homeless.”

Sigrid allowed me to go on street patrol on a Friday night in mid-September. We met after sunset in Allan Gardens, a park located in the heart of the city’s DTE, frequented by tourists visiting the historic conservatory and botanical gardens and policed for apparently high rates of crime. That evening, the park was noticeably brighter than usual; a crew was taking down lights and equipment after filming around the conservatory that day. There were also a number of police officers walking the perimeter of the grounds; the group of street patrollers speculated that their increased presence might be part of an effort to redirect lost Ryerson students participating in frosh festivities.

The walk began with a smudging and prayer, and as we headed towards George Street we offered the burning sage, along with bottles of water from Canadian Tire, drug-use kits from local social outreach agency Street Health, and bagels salvaged from a nearby bakery to the folks we encountered along the way. We paused in front of Seaton House and the houses owned by Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC); the people we met there were familiar and friendly with the patrollers, some not particularly interested in the donations but looking for the smudge and brief conversation.

The group started patrolling the streets in fall of 2013 after a woman, sleeping in a well-lit area at Dundas and Sherbourne, was sexually assaulted on two separate occasions in a single night. Both men were caught on Street Health’s surveillance tape and reported to the police. On September 27, five days after the assaults, Toronto police issued a release about the incident, but did not make adequate efforts to notify local agencies, social workers, and street-involved women of the violence.

Faced with the lack of police response, women and social justice organizations in the community took to the streets, getting the word out about what had happened, and calling on the city for more adequate and accessible shelter space. According to a 2007 Toronto-based study, 37 percent of street-involved women surveyed had been assaulted in the past twelve months, while 21 percent had been sexually assaulted. When a number of assaults against women were reported to the police in early 2014, again receiving little police response, members of the community printed and circulated posters detailing exactly what had happened.

Later that year, several women disappeared in the Trinity Bellwoods area and community-led street patrols set out once again to search for these women. Sigrid explained that from then on the group kept it going, handing out whatever supplies they could gather each week to people living in the DTE, offering to mediate when cops interacted with street-involved people in the area, and warning the community about the presence of Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) units in the area (an initiative known for the excessive ticketing, carding, and criminalizing of racialized, marginalized, and street-involved people in Toronto’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods).

Two days before I met up with Sigrid for street patrol, the province announced the budget for TAVIS would be cut significantly. The street patrol group was thrilled about this news; they had been advocating against the initiative for years. On nights when TAVIS units were in the community, police would issue expensive tickets to street-involved people for riding bicycles on sidewalks or without bells, for drinking in public, for loitering—charges that are rarely made, the group pointed out, in more affluent neighbourhoods throughout the city. These criminalizing tactics of the soon-to-be defunct TAVIS, of course, beg the question: if Toronto police are so concerned about violence in the DTE, why aren’t they helping groups like street patrol and local social services providers keep an eye out for violence on the streets? Why aren’t they helping to protect street-involved people who are suffering from mental illness, or getting the word out about recent assaults in the area?

The patrollers are all too aware of this irony, but Sigrid also explained that while many of the local cops want to help protect the community and the urban poor, they don’t have many options: “If there is someone on the street, and they’re OD-ing, or they’re totally intoxicated and they can’t function, they’ll just send them to the hospital in an ambulance. There is not much they can do.” If there was more shelter space with services meeting the specific needs of the community, perhaps these dangerous incidents would be less frequent. The problem is clear, according to Sigrid: “People need housing, some of them need supportive housing, and there just isn’t enough of it. They know what’s good and what’s bad. They’ve just fallen through the cracks. If I was in their situation I’d probably be doing the same thing.”

Sigrid, like the other street patrollers, has also lived in the DTE, has faced some of the same barriers as those living in the shelters, has been a sole-support parent for two children, and has fought to live in affordable and subsidized housing. As we continued our walk along Dundas East towards the Eaton Centre, the patrollers pointed out the numerous development proposals in the windows of small restaurants and convenience stores, clear signs of the gentrification already taking place. They are rightfully very concerned about what the near future will look like in their neighbourhood: Will the new condo buildings have affordable rental units? Who will be allowed to rent these apartments? Will those affected by mental illness, who struggle against poverty and racism, who can’t or won’t stop using substances or drinking, be adequately supported by these housing options? Will rent-geared-to-income subsidies be available to those who want to stay in the area? Where will those who can’t stay in the neighbourhood go once the shelters close their doors? The patrollers do not have the answers to these pressing questions, and sadly, it seems that the city doesn’t either.

The realities of gentrification, displacement, and homelessness in the DTE aren’t new or unforeseen issues for Toronto. They are part of a long history of relocating the urban poor, expropriating immigrant communities, and pushing Indigenous people to the margins of the city. Beginning with the complex, drawn-out, and unjust Toronto Purchase from the Mississaugas, now primarily located on Six Nations Territory near Hamilton and known as the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Toronto has consistently made efforts to erase Indigenous claims to the land and rewrite its origin story.

We often think of the 1834 incorporation of Toronto as the city’s “founding moment,” but this narrative effectively obfuscates the negotiations made between the Mississaugas and the Crown between 1787 and 1805. Such forgetting has helped pave the way for a different historical narrative to emerge, some version of “Toronto the Good,” a story of peaceful and welcoming beginnings in a city that would lead Canada—economically, socially, and ideologically—into a promising future of progress and diversity.

That identity was effectively upended in 2010 when the government of Canada paid out $125 million in reparations to the Mississaugas of the New Credit. The land claim case called attention to a legally invalid transaction made between the Crown and the Mississaugas in 1805. The original surrender of the land that would become Toronto occurred in 1787, when the Mississaugas agreed to sell 10 square miles (6,400 acres) to the British government. But in the years that followed, the boundaries that were originally agreed upon were called into question by government officials. In 1805 the Crown took it upon itself to draw up a new agreement, one that expanded the Toronto Purchase to an area spanning 14 x 28 miles (250, 800 acres), without providing further compensation to the Mississaugas for this significantly larger portion of land.

The Mississaugas continued to live on the Credit River until they were eventually crowded out of their remaining 200 acres of land and forced to relocate to Six Nations’ territory near Hagersville, Ontario. With this history of forced removal in mind, it’s important to note that while the federal government’s reparations acknowledge the wrongs of the past, it does not lay all past violences to rest—$125 million covers only a fraction of current value of the land that was stolen and does not make up for over two centuries of colonial rule. It goes without saying that the 2010 reparations do not account for Toronto’s continued discrimination against and neglect of its urban Indigenous population.  

I spoke with the patrollers about how their work is part of a larger effort to reclaim the streets, not just from the city’s redevelopment plans, but from the colonial systems that have dispossessed and displaced Indigenous people in Toronto for over two centuries. Sigrid agreed that countering the effects of colonial practices is part of their mission, and she explained that patrollers also show people “that somebody cares about them.” She told me she once met an Indigenous woman who had been on the street for seven years. The woman told Sigrid: “Even if you just hand us a toothbrush, it’s so important. It means a lot when somebody gives you recognition, just gives you anything.”

The work that street patrol is doing is important and radical for precisely this reason. Their donations are not providing long-term change, although they might help make a night outdoors more comfortable. But their presence asserts that these vulnerable people are worthy of adequate care, are part of a community, are not on their own.

Our nation state systematically displaced and tried to assimilate Indigenous populations in the past, and today the violence continues: hundreds or thousands of Indigenous women, trans, and two-spirit people have been lost to violence, thousands of Indigenous children are in state care, and in a given eight-week period, an average of 30,000 Indigenous people are violently victimized. Faced with our government’s devastating incompetence and intentional ignorance, community-led-initiatives like street patrol are bold and necessary demonstrations of solidarity in a dire situation.

A municipal revitalization plan that does not prioritize area residents, that does not recognize the specific barriers people living in shelters might face along with the supports they need to stay housed, is an initiative built to fail. Or perhaps more accurately, an initiative built to fail the most vulnerable residents in the area and pave the way for the economic success of corporate real estate developers.

While it is clear that the state of housing and shelter conditions in the DTE is in need of serious attention, the city’s latest revitalization strategy is not concretely incorporating the specific needs of the community in its planning. As many organizations invested in this community will say, an integrated system of care must accompany Toronto’s housing-first strategy—care that is currently being undertaken by small social service organizations and community-led outreach like street patrol. If Toronto’s DTE residents and street-involved people are forced to relocate under these conditions, however, the fate of this necessary grassroots system of care will flounder, and the lives of the city’s already vulnerable urban poor will be put at further risk.   

The continued loss of shelter beds in Toronto is an urgent issue that could mean life or death for many street-involved and low-income people in the city this winter. This crisis is not inevitable in a metropolis like Toronto, but the result of irresponsible city planning, strategies that are not so distant from the settler colonialism that has displaced and tried to assimilate our host peoples for centuries. If the city actually intends to lower occupancy rates and institute a housing-first model, it needs to stop prioritizing the wealthy and protect the rights of the urban poor. “The people are here now and they’re not being taken care of,” said Sigrid. “It has nothing to do with bad choices. We all know that.”


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