Aug 11

…Only Outlaws Will Have Panhandles: How The Sun got it wrong on poverty & panhandling

Produced for a 2008 study, this map shows the major panhandling locations downtown. The larger balloons indicate the presence of three or more panhandlers.

The venerable Toronto Sun is on the warpath. Their enemy is — and has been for more than a week now — the act of panhandling. First, they declared the practice one of the three things Mayor Rob Ford must deal with this year, along with eliminating the nickel charge for plastic bags and slapping a licence on cyclists. They then followed that up with almost a dozen articles and columns calling for an immediate and effective end to panhandling. Their preferred method? New laws. Policing. Cracking down.

All this comes despite a complete absence of statistical support and the fact that the city’s hired consultants — you remember them: they said we should consider cutting everything — actually advocate providing more resources to the homelessness program implemented under former mayor David Miller.

As if millions of voices suddenly cried out

No other newspaper in the city is as effective at marshalling their writers around one singular cause. The Sun brought out a parade of reporters and columnists to give their two cents on the matter, with no one deviating from the editorial line. Joe Warmington declared panhandling a “scourge” and did some back-of-the-envelope math showing that, apparently, some panhandlers in Toronto earn more than $40,000 per year. “Robbers,” he called them, hiding behind politicians who “love the homeless and use them as pawns to advance a socialist agenda.”

The parade went on: Sue-Ann Levy declared that it’s “time for action on panhandlers” and quoted a resident who claimed that “shopping on Queen Street in the Beach is like running the gauntlet in a ghetto” due to an onslaught of panhandlers. Ian Robertson had a story about beggars and their “tricks”, making the whole thing sound a bit Tolkienish. Terry Davidson was actually given an assignment to go out and panhandle himself for a while, and report back on what it’s like.

A Thursday editorial was most emphatic: “Solving this crisis begins with making it illegal to live on our streets, period. No excuses.” The same editorial, bizarrely, goes on to advocate treatment programs for homeless people but also seems to condemn the thought of spending more money on such programs.

It’s an impressive display of uniformity, but what’s most notably is what’s missing from all the invective and calls for a law-and-order approach is the answer to two questions:

  1. Has there been a documented increase in the number of panhandlers or homeless people in the last few years?
  2. Has there been a documented increase in the number of complaints about panhandlers from residents or businesses?

You’d think answering these questions is where journalists would start, but the Toronto Sun — maybe in the interest of efficiency — simply skipped the statistic-gathering step and barrelled onward.

Which is too bad, actually, because the City actually put together a rather comprehensive study on panhandling in 2008. It’s well-worth reading, and includes useful things like facts and numbers. (They also produced a map, as above.)

For example: per the study, most panhandlers make about $20 to $25 per day, or about $3.57 an hour. Eighty percent of panhandlers surveyed indicated that they would like to quit panhandling. The biggest barrier they face, according to more than three-quarters of respondents, is a lack of permanent housing. (Contrary to a popular stereotype, the study finds no real evidence for a class of panhandler that is either employed or employable and has permanent private housing.)

But wait, there’s more: business operators in the downtown study area “did not believe the police were the best response” to panhandling. More generally, the report noted that police blitzes of panhandlers in other urban areas “does not seem to necessarily impact panhandling behaviour on a City wide level, though they may curtail the activity in a particular area for a period of time.”

The study was part of a pilot project that saw city social workers — under the Streets to Homes banner — connect with panhandlers. The workers identified more than 100 panhandlers who had access to some form of housing and provided them links to community agencies and other services so they could collect provincial benefits, establish a treatment program for addiction or mental illness, and find employment and/or improved housing.

And I know, this all sounds like silly bleeding-heart liberal stuff that just coddles people and doesn’t produce results, but the numbers are there: after a mere twelve week pilot, more than two-thirds of the panhandlers involved in the program were no longer panhandling. You can read some case studies as part of Appendix C of the report.

Social services programs are the only way to effectively address any panhandling problem, because panhandling is — almost always — a symptom of poverty. We cannot make poverty illegal, nor can we make it disappear. We have to deal with it.

The Gravy Question

But isn’t Toronto’s “Streets to Homes” program just part of the big, ineffective gravy train? Isn’t this just useless bureaucracy? I don’t think so. Since it launched in 2005, Streets to Homes has found permanent housing for more than 3,000 people who were previously living on the streets. Most remain housed for more than a year, which is a substantive achievement when you consider the issues — addiction; mental illness; disability — that lead to poverty and homelessness in the first place.

But, hell, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look to KPMG, who recently put together a big fat whale of a study that essentially put all of the city’s social and cultural services on the table as potential cuts. All, that is, except for Streets to Homes. In fact, on page 48 of their report to the Community Development & Recreation Committee, KPMG actually advocates providing more resources for that program.

It is, as far as I can tell, the only place these consultants have put forth a consideration for more program spending to reduce other service costs.

Panhandling and — more critically — poverty are major issues facing our city, but all the data seems to indicate that Toronto does have an effective strategy in place that could, given more resources, continue to limit the number of people living on the street. It’s unfortunate that the Toronto Sun seems to have missed that and has instead run headline after headline trying to get us to join the cause for police action on homelessness.

We shouldn’t listen. No matter how much they beg.

The KPMG consideration on Streets to Homes

The KPMG consideration on Streets to Homes

Jul 11

Mayor Rob Ford skips every Pride-related event

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale makes it official:

Mayor Rob Ford will not be making a surprise appearance at the Pride parade on Sunday.

Ford’s spokesperson, Adrienne Batra, told CP24 that Ford would remain at the Muskoka cottage where he is spending time with his family.

Ford said on June 22 that he would miss the parade for the cottage gathering. Pride officials, councillors, former mayors and Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, a gay rights advocate, were among the people who had urged him to reconsider.

Ford is the first Toronto mayor to miss the parade since June Rowlands in 1994.

via Ford to skip Pride parade – thestar.com.

Not only did the mayor miss the parade — forgivable, given his commitment to a family tradition — but also dozens of other Pride events that took place over the past week, ranging in complexity from a pub brunch on Bay street to a flag-raising taking place a short walk from his office. His only concessions to this major cultural event — an event that draws a hundred million dollars of economic activity — was his scrawled signature on the mayoral proclamation and a lone message posted to his Twitter account, which is managed by assistant Tom Beyer. (Who did, in fact, attend the parade.)

The bottom line: thousands of people came to the city over the past week to spend money and experience Toronto, and yet the mayor, for no good reason, did not publicly welcome them. Even if you can look past the social ramifications of the mayor snubbing the LBGT community, this just feels like bad manners.

Most of the apologist arguments on this issue were pretty weak — Pride is nothing but a dog pile of debauchery so why should the mayor attend? or Why are so-called open-minded, pro-choice liberals trying to force the mayor to do something? — but one school of thought stood out as particularly ignorant. Best espoused by the Toronto Sun’s Peter Worthington, it went like this:

Why would anyone in the gay community want Ford at their parade?

If a million citizens turn out to watch the goings-on, participate and relish the get-together, surely that’s more significant than having a reluctant mayor in attendance.

I suspect he was invited simply and only so he could be booed.

vía No reason for Ford to attend Pride parade | Toronto Sun.

The answer to “Why would anyone want Ford at the Pride parade?” is really simple. It’s because, love him or hate him, he is the Mayor of Toronto. And with that title comes the responsibility to represent all the people of Toronto. Even if you take issue with the person sitting in the chair, you respect the office. The office means something.

You see it at council meetings, when classes of students drop in to the gallery. When the mayor approaches those groups — and, to his credit, he always does — the kids go nuts. They may not understand the procedural slog that is city government, but they get that this man, handing them business cards for some reason, is an important guy. He runs the whole city.

It wasn’t important that Rob Ford attend a Pride event. That’s getting too granular, too specific. It was important that the Mayor of Toronto attend a Pride event.

Sue-Ann Levy, of all people, sums things up nicely in her latest column:

But he and his advisors allowed the fiasco to escalate by ignoring suggestions for him to stop in at safe events, like an awards ceremony Wednesday evening, and even to hold a private event in his office.

Clearly they don’t understand the fine nuances of being a mayor of all the people of this city.

A true leader doesn’t shrink from one powerful group just because they didn’t vote for him.

He does the right thing.

via Rob Ford blows it on Pride | Toronto Sun.

A commenter to Levy’s column responds with “fag fest is over.” Which brings up the other sad part of this whole thing: Ford hasn’t even made a token gesture to disavow the notion that he agrees with the homophobic horde that is gleefully championing his time at the cottage.

Jun 11

Proud of Levy

From Sue-Ann Levy’s latest, discussing Councillor James Pasternak’s desire to rewrite Toronto’s anti-discrimination policy:

Pasternak said he’s asked the new anti-discrimination policy ensures “no public funds or city-permitted space” is given to a group involved in Israeli Apartheid.

via No hatred at Pride this year | Columnists | Opinion | Toronto Sun.

I would think Queers Against Israeli Apartheid would very much support such a policy.

On a serious note: Levy’s column is problematic — it always is — echoing the repeated falsehood that the City of Toronto could withhold this year’s Pride funding if QuAIA did march (on what grounds?), and pushing the viewpoint that it would be simple for Toronto to craft an anti-discrimination policy that would rule out groups like QuAIA.

But she ends with a quick appeal to Mayor Rob Ford, asking him to march in this year’s Pride parade. To “be the mayor of all the people.”

Levy is never more sympathetic than when she does stuff like that. That she does so while followed by a Toronto Sun comment section that tells her to “Keep convincing yourself’s your normal and one day you’ll believe it but it won’t make it true [sic]”  and to “Give it a rest, dyke” makes her stand all the more appealing.

Still, though, she’s wrong about almost everything else almost all of the time.

Jun 11

Arena deal reveals downside to contracting out

The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba:

The City of Toronto is looking to take over a new four-pad arena in Etobicoke that is dangerously close to defaulting on loans guaranteed by the municipal government.

Lakeshore Lions Arena, also known as the Mastercard Centre for Hockey Excellence, was built to replace an ageing single-pad facility run for some 55 years by the not-for-profit Lakeshore Lions Club. It’s the home of the Etobicoke Dolphins, the Faustina hockey club house league, and most notably is used as practice space by the Toronto Maple Leafs and Marlies.

via City looks to take over debt-troubled Etobicoke hockey arena | Posted Toronto | National Post.

Though the venerable Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy tried to spin this story as a lingering failure left by the David Miller administration, I’m really not sure that holds up to any kind of scrutiny. If anything, this works as an example of how contracting out a service to the private sector can sometimes not turn out as well as governments might hope.

The private sector is not and has never been the magic elixir that automatically makes government smaller and reduces costs.

This arena deal still seems like something the current administration would salivate over. A private, not-for-profit company assumes responsibility for building and managing the arena — which provides a tangible benefit for local residents — keeping it out of the hands of the city bureaucracy. The city is only the hook to back a loan issued to cover construction costs.

What’s not to love? It’s hockey without bureaucracy. And they even sold naming rights to Mastercard to sweeten the deal. Conservatives love selling naming rights.

But it didn’t work. Sometimes these things don’t work. Construction costs went up as the arena was constructed, requiring the city to increase their loan guarantee. Once completed, commercial space in the complex didn’t lease. Something had to give.

Mayor Rob Ford told the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat that he’s “furious” about the arena’s financial problems, which have led to a staff recommendation that would essentially in-source control of the facility:

“(The arena) is completely mismanaged,” Ford told reporters at City Hall. “I’ve voted for it and I regret doing that.”

via Ford ‘furious’ over arena bailout | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

And okay, fury is an acceptable emotion, but the revelation of this scenario isn’t that Ford and the previous council were wrong to vote for the deal — on the surface, it was a pretty good deal — but that, with contracting out, you inevitably give up something that’s incredibly valuable: oversight.

That’s an important thing to consider as council continues down this road of contracting out everything not nailed down.

Jun 11

The mayor who once mused about selling public housing to pay operating costs

So remember when Rob Ford told the media he thought it might be a good idea to sell some existing units of public housing and use the revenues to pay down this year’s budget gap? He was, apparently, just kidding around.

The Toronto Star Editorial Board has more on this:

Even if Ford could somehow find a way over these hurdles, selling almost 1,000 homes in various states of repair would likely take years. It wouldn’t be much help in dealing with the city’s shortfall now.

So we ask again, “Where’s the gravy?” Ford failed to find it in time for the 2011 budget, which was to drop by 2.5 per cent thanks to all the fat he would drain from the system. He ended up spending more to run the city, not less. Never mind, said Ford, 2012 will be different. If so there’s no sign of it yet. Gutting public housing shouldn’t be an option.

via Public housing: Ford’s futile cash grab – thestar.com.

That the mayor mused even briefly about using revenue from the sale of public housing to plug a gap in the operating budget is deeply disturbing. That sort of strategy doesn’t even pass muster as fiscally conservative. It’s just plain fiscally irresponsible.

For the record, there’s nothing wrong with looking at selling vacant or badly-damaged TCHC units (many of them are very old homes that would be very expensive to fix up) but it needs to be done as part of an overarching plan to improve the state of public housing in the city.

Lurking under a lot of the rhetoric we hear about the TCHC — Sue-Ann Levy’s criticism of some TCHC residents who live in “prime beachfront property,” for example — is the suggestion that we could do housing more cheaply if we packed residents into dense towers, concentrated in a few low-value areas across the city. This is a bad idea for so many obvious reasons that it hurts to even think about.

Feb 11

Strategy in the mayor’s office: identify subversive elements and crush them

Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan writes a good piece on the aforementioned Globe & Mail article, highlighting the other ridiculous part of the interview with I-assure-you-he’s-not-the-Mayor Doug Ford:

More distressing than the lament about the perils of voting and council debate, however, was when Doug Ford went on to object to the recent OCAP protest at City Hall—not the fact that it disrupted a meeting, but that the protesters apparently were considered a legitimate part of public debate in the first place. “Some of those folks are actually getting grants from the city to lobby against the government…I just don’t understand.”

That’s what we do in a democracy, Doug: we fund our opponents. Ensuring opponents have a voice is, roughly speaking, the whole point.

via The Brothers Ford Are Concerned About Democracy – Torontoist.

There’s been a witch hunt vibe coming from the Mayor’s Office lately. See also this Sun-Ann Levy column where she goes to great lengths to identify all the councillors who attended a CUPE meeting last week, held in response to the mayor’s call to privatize garbage. Apparently it isn’t possible to attend such meetings simply to get an understanding of both sides of an issue – instead anyone there must be a union-loving traitor who hates taxpayers.

Feb 11

A look back at Mike Del Grande and Sue-Ann Levy’s imaginary city budget

Via a comment on BlogTO, I came across this 2007 Sue-Ann Levy column, in which she details a fun weekend she spent with Councillor Mike Del Grande, currently the city’s Budget Chief. To summarize, they got together and used their imaginations to drastically slash the city’s budget. Councillor Del Grande liked the outcome so much he archived the article on his website:

So last week Del Grande and I spent two days looking for savings and our own revenue tools to replace the $356 million anticipated from the new land transfer and vehicle ownership taxes.

We found some $440.9 million — $419.4 million from what I’ve called the Big Ticket Items like wages and benefits. There was another $21.5 million from what the socialists like to call “chicken feed” — the small yet symbolic cuts to councillor office budgets, their wage hikes and free food, the city’s grants, special events, cultural and plant watering budgets that Coun. Rob Ford raises year after year.

via The Toronto Sun: City Hall.

The 440.9 million they “found” is similar to the amount Ford pledged to cut in his first year in office. And we know how that turned out – the 2011 budget is, in fact, bigger than the 2010 budget. Same as it ever was.

It’s interesting to look at the items Levy and Del Grande put on their mythic chopping block. A bunch of it is pure fantasy. They wanted to kill the city’s 100-year-old fair wage policy. Easier said than done. They suggested freezing wages for non-unionized staff, something that was actually done under Miller, but isn’t sustainable.

Then there’s the kind of stuff that, in retrospect, feels a lot like foreshadowing. They slashed office budgets to $30K and froze council salaries. They cut the free food and coffee and slashed travel budgets. They even proposed a cut to the Tenant Defence fund. All things that have been floated by the new administration in the mayor’s office.

Incredibly, Del Grande and Levy also snuck in a cut to the lobbyist registry. Which saves very little money and seems like a real loser of a proposal. But then, who needs oversight when you’ve vowed to be awesome and make no mistakes?

The most prescient thing about this whole exercise, which was surely meant to make David Miller look like a spending-addicted tax-ocrat, is that to find their half billion dollars in ‘savings’ Del Grande and Levy had to apply a series of ‘revenue fixes.’ They account increased revenues from new condo assessments and provincial uploading. They even proposed a property tax hike of 6%.

Of course none of this matters now, because council’s right-wing has decided the city doesn’t have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem. And magic privatization fairies will solve everything.