Saturday, June 4, 2011

Public place to live, but a place to die

By Stephen Spencer Davis and Timothy Appleby, Globe and Mail, June 3, 2011
A tenant is at least four times as likely to be murdered as someone living elsewhere in the GTA, statistics suggest.

When 15-year-old Andrew Naidoo was fatally shot this week in the courtyard of the battered, low-rise public housing complex that was his home in northwest Toronto, the tragedy garnered headlines chiefly because of his age.
Few however – certainly not the police – were surprised about where the city’s 23rd homicide of the year took place. Data analyzed by The Globe and Mail, including months of security reports obtained through a freedom of information request, show that among the 164,000 Toronto Community Housing Corporation tenants, the likelihood of falling victim to violent crime in general, and murder in particular, far exceeds that of the rest of the city’s population.
Righteous indignation will not bring Andrew Naidoo back. Neither will it change the attitudes and policies of the public in current Canadian culture to "public housing" projects that leave residents in peril.
We need public leaders, spokespersons, in the calibre of John Ralston Saul, who never misses an opportunity to declare that both homelessness and poverty can be eliminated in this country if we had the political will. We certainly have the resources.
Cries from church leaders, from occasional columnists like Carol Goar of the Toronto Star, and even social activists seem to fall on deaf ears at municipal, provincial and federal government levels. Even headlines of murders do not bring change. Nevertheless, this 'canary in the coal mine' is only one of many that are singing their song of the loss of hope, the loss of dignity and the loss of significance.
These people who live in public housing, in every town and city across the country, are among the country's forgotten, the country's ignored, the country's nameless citizens. Many do not have work and are living on public funds, without either promise or hope of lifting themselves out of this climate and culture, without a dramatic change in public attitudes.
It is so obvious that politicians respond to publicly perceived and publicly expressed and publicly defined squeeky wheels. They know only "keep the issue at a low, imperceptible level where the public will not be arounsed to demand change." The political aspirations of elected officials, certainly those in municipalities, often has more to do with rewarding friends and financial supporters than with attending to the filth, the dirt and the danger of such statistics as "murder rates in public housing." Those are for the people on the front lines, the police, the social workers, the clergy, the occasional educator, and the fire departments responsible.
Of couse, no one is suggesting that murder rates are as high in every community as they are in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). However, conditions below a standard in which none of us would choose to live are the conditions in which the poor and the impoverished are living.
And there is no voice in the political arena that takes up their plight...none!
Simply put, their cause has no political pay-back. It is without reward. There are so few votes among the poor and yet, to spend public money on changing the conditions in which they live is so counterintuitive to the public discourse of buget restraint, budget cuts, and budget debt and deficit (even though those formerly in charge of the public housing department in Toronto were apparently quite free with their public cheque books on their own spending on luxuries).
While everyone agrees that we are in an age of accountability, we are not, apparently, accountable for our culture of "denial" of the kind of problems this Globe story illustrates.
And yet, who is doing the accounting for the social costs of not attending to issues like homelessness, and sub-par living conditions maintained by the public purse, and a failure to take such issues seriously?
We are quick to judge the members of the board of the housing administration, for their personal greed, but when do we hold the politicians to account for their closed eyes and ears to such plights as the real people whose lives are reduced, diminished and even shortened by the conditions in which they live.
It seems we would rather attack the public "zits" that recognize and address the public cancers. Do we even have "laboratories" where studies can be conducted of successful social projects that reclaim such living conditions in other jurisdictions, whose findings can be incorporated, with necessary amendments, to our own cities and towns. There is a kind of silo of provincialism in many Ontario towns, that keeps the public servants in the dark about sucessful projects in other towns and cities. Similarly, silos keep cities across the country in the dark about visionary developments in other parts of the country.
I once made a presentation of an original program of re-education hundreds of victims of the dot-com bust in Ottawa.There had been a large bubble of workers released as redundant from the tech sector in that city. The program included time for hands-on work, classroom instruction, mentoring and job-placements as interns, prior to full resumption of workplace re-entry. The only question I was asked by the executive of the social service agency to which I made the presentation was "Why can't we have someone from Ottawa writing and presenting such a proposal?" I was then living in North Bay, Ontario, a brief three-plus hour drive away. Of course, the proposal was rejected by the narrow provincial attitudes of the administrator.

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