Open letter to Mayor Tory: Listen to voices of the poor and marginalized

Open letter to Mayor Tory: Listen to voices of the poor and marginalized

Toronto’s new mayor has an opportunity to let the voices of the city’s homeless and marginalized people be heard, says activist Pat Capponi.

Oct 27 2014

An open letter to Toronto’s mayor-elect, John Tory:

Congratulations on your electoral victory. As you prepare to take over the leadership of our great city, you need to know that those men and women who make up the population of the long-term poor, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the abandoned and the lost, are looking to you for effective, urgent and comprehensive interventions that can and will return them to mainstream society, where they can re-build from the wreckage of their lives and move forward with determination to contribute their talents and long-buried ambitions and abilities to their communities.

Over the decades we’ve seen homelessness increase, seen poverty deepen and spread its tentacles upward, capturing more and more individuals and families in its death grip. Our collective efforts, through agencies and front-line workers, though well-meaning, have not positively impacted the numbers affected, and will not until we face some unpleasant truths about the nature and limitations of the help offered.

Professional helpers over the years have labelled people from this captive group “hard to serve” and “hard to house.” This is an admission of our failure, though couched in terms of blaming the victims, it underlines our inability to make a real difference with the tools we have.

In this lengthy mayoral campaign, “progressive candidates” have come up with solutions that end homelessness in 10 years. That lack of urgency, created by policy people is astonishing though widespread. Life on the street is brutal and short, especially for women who are so vulnerable to attack and abuse. People can’t wait 10 years, nor should they have to.

Here are some truths that haven’t made their way into social work schools:

Treat people like mental patients and they will stay mental patients.

Increase the numbers of professional staff in agencies and “supportive housing” and there will be a corresponding decrease in the autonomy of those who make up their roles.

Streaming according to the particular label people carry ensures they will never get out from under that label. Systemic issues can stay hidden and stay ignored, the corrosive and soul-destroying impact of poverty overlooked.

To say that the poor are too busy struggling to survive to come up with solutions is an egregious and elitist way of preserving the role of those in the business of care-giving and care-creation. (The Atkinson Foundation was the first body to understand that enabling learning and growth through the use of honorariums in exchange for participation freed up the mind and paid huge dividends in formulating new ideas and new approaches from those with lived experience.)

Funding from government ministries and charitable bodies is based on reported “success.” This has created a form of collusion where “good news” only works its way up in statistics, often highlighting the exceptional poster men and women – often people who were on the verge of making it anyway – are enlisted to sing the praises of their helpers. Any problems or horror stories that break through this rosy assessment into the front pages of newspapers are attributed to lack of sufficient funding, or someone falling through the cracks, when most of us know well that there is no system to speak of, and that it’s not about funding, it’s about how and what is funded.

When funding depends on success, there is an increased reluctance to challenge oneself with the “difficult.” That is true for employment agencies, social services, and anyone receiving a salary and position in the field.

Expectations are something to be lived up or down to. In too many services, management and staff have little to no expectations of their client group, instead instituting more controls, more rules, more indiscriminate barring from their establishments. Even worse, government has little expectations of those they fund, especially around moving people on and up.

Every agency is a fiefdom to itself, with a captive group who make up their numbers. There is little or no effort to lower the agency walls, the reality that there is competition for funding discourages working together with other services for the betterment of their population.

Over the years Voices from the Street and Women Speak Out have been in existence, we have learned a great deal from our participants. And the participants have learned from each other. When people who have been silenced, marginalized and brutalized over decades, who have learned to be ashamed of their peers and their circumstances, start to talk to each other about their lives and their struggles, they start to experience a nascent pride in that strength and determination which against all odds kept them alive, they begin their journey forward.

The importance of role models, people who have made that journey and reached back to ensure others find their way, the learning those role models can impart to government and executive directors about what works and what hurts, cannot be overstated.

We should not add funds to failure, but start from a blank slate to design services that work specifically for the entrenched poor. Government at the city and the province needs to start afresh with this population, demonstrating a determination to ensure every service that purports to work with this population must set real targets that include hiring in real numbers people who have lived experience, the creation of social enterprises to address poverty, and one-stop resource hubs that eliminate the need to run all over the city to get what they need.

John, I have confidence that you are the right man in the right place at the right time. You hold our future in your hands.

Pat Capponi has extensive lived experience of poverty, mental illness and agencies as a worker and a client.

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott