It’s tough to be homeless in Toronto — and it’s getting tougher


Often elaborate, constructed from repurposed detritus, bits of scrapyard refuse, plastic sheeting, milk cartons, discarded mattresses, layers of threadbare blankets. Somebody else’s tossed away junk.

For better or worse: home.

In front of St. Michael’s Hospital, a man has co-opted pylons from a nearby construction site, to delineate his space.

And of course, here and there, under the Gardiner Expressway, almost a semi-permanent address, one fellow such a long-time “resident” that his name and quotes can be found in media archives dating back several years. Roust him during occasional removal sweeps by the city and he’ll return in a few days time, ingeniously recreating his one-man encampment, complete with propane heater.

Many of these poor souls have fallen through the social welfare cracks; others dove into the crevices by route of addictions, alcoholism and mental illness. So much mental illness untreated, a generational consequence of decisions made by various levels of government but most especially Queen’s Park under premier Mike Harris’s downloading schemes in the mid-’90s — downloaded to the amalgamated metropolis.

Yet the Doug Ford administration appears to have gouged deeper, as per campaign promises to cut the deficit. Crunching available numbers, the Ontario Health Coalition cites a figure of $22 billion that will disappear from funding for public health services and programs over the next three to four years.

It’s cold out here and getting colder.

Over the past week, three homeless individuals died in Toronto, says the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which on Thursday staged another rally demanding action from all levels of government to alleviate the urgent housing crisis.

There was Crystal Papineau, apparently trapped inside a clothing donations near Dovercourt and Bloor, where she may have been scrounging for items to sell, which is a common practice among the indigent. Another female, not yet identified by police, was struck and killed by a truck backing up into an alley in the area of York and Adelaide Sts. where she had been spotted sleeping over several nights. Sanctuary Ministries has confirmed that a third person, an Indigenous male around 25 to 30 years of age, died as well, around the same time in another laneway, though this death has not yet appeared on any police blotter that I could find.

The Star’s Emily Mathieu reported that the city’s 4,430 emergency beds for women, men and youth were nearly full last Thursday — according to city data — in the midst of Toronto’s first cold weather alert of 2019. A block of about 2,850 beds and hotels and motels, added to the stock to alleviate strain on the system, were 85 per cent full. An additional 1,034 people sought shelter inside drop-ins, the warming centre at Metro Hall, and three Out of the Cold program locations.

It requires only an eyes-on glance to grasp that the homeless population is ever-increasing. Last April, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen De Villa, revealed the findings of the city’s inaugural death data compilation — at least 100 people had died in 2017.

This is down to us, everyone who calls Toronto home and why poverty activists are urging that a further 2,000 shelter and respite beds be opened immediately.

Even if that were possible — and there’s no indication it will happen — the underlying reasons for homelessness are so diverse and complicated to address, no matter how well-intentioned the steps which have been already taken, the slapdash emergency response and the tireless efforts of the housing activist community.

Much hand-wringing ensued after the death of Papineau, rightly so, but the emphasis on donation bins as a cause — at least eight deaths since 2015, The Canadian Press has reported — are not the core issue, even as manufacturers promise to correct the death-trap risk by redesign, a long-term undertaking.

Yet there were details about the Papineau tragedy that weren’t reported amidst the grieving by her friends and social agency advocates, contributing factors which convolute the blame-game.

Papineau, 35, had essentially been banned, temporarily, by Sistering, a women’s 24/7 drop-in where she’d been a regular client. Administrators don’t like to speak of it but Papineau had recently been violent, assaulting other women and causing a problem on the shelter side of the facility.

“She was on what we call a respite,” explains Patricia O’Connell, executive director. “She had hit so many people, it had become really bad.”

But O’Connell emphasizes that Papineau was still able to access the “full support services” available through Sistering, with her regular team.

Papineau had been last seen sitting on the steps outside around 2 a.m. Thursday, before telling friends she was off to search for items in a collection bin, what O’Connell describes as “goodies” that homeless women collect for sale, to make a bit of money.

This is certainly not meant to blame Sistering, which does the work of angels. But Papineau was well-known for her addiction problems and, at some point, the greater good must be put first. Violence is hardly uncommon among those struggling with alcohol and drug dependency. The safety of others became paramount in this case.

Homelessness can be the outcome of addiction and mental illness or those ills can lead to a ramshackle life on the streets. Some hard-core homeless will only come in from the cold sporadically because they fear the tumult and thieving at shelters. Or simply because they are remarkably self-sufficient and will not be coerced into the shelter system.

Everyone has the right to make their own decisions. But where does our collective responsibility lie? What of a city’s competing interest to not look so shabby and implicated in the deterioration of shared public space?

Every so often, when the overtly visible encrustation of squalid encampments is deemed too much of an eyesore — or, purportedly, out of concern for the inhabitants — other parts of the city’s intervention apparatus step in.

Beginning last week, staff have been warning encampment denizens in some downtown priority areas that their self-constructed shelters will be dismantled with 14 days of eviction notice delivered. As of this past Wednesday, eight notices had been issues, says city spokesperson Brad Ross.

Yet Ross claims there’s “no D-Day” for removal of the designated tents and haphazard camps.

“You can’t camp in a city park so you can’t camp on other city proper either. There are bylaws against it.”

There’s a risk to their own safety because some have propane heaters. In some areas, they encroach on the sidewalk and people have to walk around them.

At the same time, the city is working with those affected to access the Streets to Homes program and other shelter accommodation. “Frankly, there is space at the shelters,” says Ross. “I do appreciate that it’s not the permanent housing people want. Hopefully, some people actually take us up on the services offered. Maybe they won’t but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”

We know, however, that these occasional root-out ventures are stopgap measures — expensive “whack-a-mole mobilizing by city forces, as critics call it — and quickly undone. According to the city’s Transportation Services, staff cleared out encampments under the elevation portion of the Gardiner Expressway at Spadina Avenue four times last summer. Each time it cost the city about $3,500 for that one location alone.

Where to go, though, where to go? Unlike shelters, a self-reliant encampment doesn’t turn out residents during daytime hours to shuffle along city streets or huddle in parks and doorways.

They’re as close to a foothold of permanency and ownership that too many chronically homeless in Toronto will ever know.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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2018 was a tough year for Toronto — but we’re still here


On July 24, I was on my way to a lunch meeting on the Danforth, when I was stopped short beside a little patio on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop. In the glass of the cafe’s front window was a gap in the shape of two overlapping circles a little smaller than a fist, surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks.

Bullet holes.

On the inside of the glass, at a table right near the window, a couple of people were sitting and drinking coffee, business as usual. On the outside of the window, two men were preparing to use suction-cup handles to remove the window pane and replace it.

That little tableau sticks in my memory as summing up something about this city in this year.

Elsewhere along the street there were piles of flowers and boarded-up storefronts on which people had written messages of strength and hope in chalk, and painted heart shapes, and laid wreaths on the sidewalk.

The shock of the murderous rampage still seemed fresh, the grief at the loss of two young girls still setting in, the emotions were still pouring out of us in memorials and tributes and statements of sorrow and resolve. Yet businesses reopened, people were out working and shopping and eating and drinking coffee. Life went on. Repairs were underway. There was work to do. But the scars were still fresh and visible.

Toronto felt like that too often in 2018.

This was a year when the term “Toronto Strong” was coined, and a year when it was tested. A year defined at many stops along the way by violence and sadness.

In April, there’d been an earlier murderous attack on Yonge Street, this one by the driver of a van who killed 10 and injured 16. The unprecedented mass attacks on strangers contributed to a record-high number of homicides in Toronto. It was a year when, early on, news was dominated by the arrest and investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur. It was a year in which two schoolgirls were shot in a playground.

Glimmers of light pierced the darkness along the way, often seen in how Torontonians reacted to the horror. During the Yonge St. van attack, strangers rushed out into the street to help the victims, and Constable Ken Lam calmly took the attacker alive, refusing to be goaded into co-operating in a suicide-by-cop. The city rallied together more than once to show its love, its courage, its heart. But the occasions for these displays were overwhelmingly sad.

It can be difficult to keep in mind that this remains a city blessed by prosperity and opportunity and — yes, even still — relative peace and safety compared to much of the rest of the world and even the rest of Canada. And even if they seemed trivial compared to the toll of the violence, there were occasions to smile. The King Street Pilot project attracted masses of new riders. Our Leafs and Raptors are actually good. Wonderful new skating trails opened downtown under the Gardiner and in Scarborough on McCowan Rd. Work finally began on the Don River flood protection that could open up the Port Lands to long-planned development. York University students and Vaughan residents got a full year to ride the first subway extension opened in over a decade. They turned the lights back on in front of the El Mocambo.

Those are good things, for many of us. Nice things.

And yet, they feel like small things next to the relentlessly growing pile of challenges and defeats.

Even away from the crime beat, things were more often grim or enraging. The year began with a cold-weather crisis in the homeless shelter system — one advocates say has not gone away even as the year ends. The city appears to have seen more pedestrian and cyclist deaths this year than ever before. Both the provincial and municipal elections saw last-minute disruptions that turned the expected matchups on their heads — both came, in different ways, to be dominated by Doug Ford’s populist wrecking ball. And since then, we’ve had controversy at the OPP and Hydro One and Waterfront Toronto, the slashing of after-school and at-risk youth programs, cuts to arts and Indigenous program funding and the cancellation of the basic income pilot. There’s a $100 million shortfall in land transfer tax receipts at the city. And so on.

Among the best things you can say about 2018 is that it is just about over. A fresh new year is almost here, and with it the hope — if not necessarily the expectation — for better news in the future.

And we’re still here, Toronto. Strong, still. Sitting behind our fractured front window, drinking coffee and figuring out what 2019 might bring. Life goes on. Repairs need to be made. We have work to do.

Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire


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Canada Revenue Agency is tough on regular taxpayers but goes easy on those with offshore accounts, audit finds


The tax man goes easy on wealthy Canadians with offshore bank accounts while being harsh on regular taxpayers, according to a damning report made public by the federal auditor general Tuesday.

Wealthy tax cheats are given more time to find receipts and they get their interest and penalties waived, even if they didn’t ask for it.

Meanwhile, if a salaried employee can’t find a receipt, it’s automatically disallowed and they’re reassessed, the report said.

“Most taxpayers are individuals with Canadian employment income. We found that the (Canada Revenue Agency) requested information from these taxpayers more quickly, and gave less time to respond, than it did with other taxpayers, such as international and large businesses, and taxpayers with offshore transactions,” said the report.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson highlighted a double standard that many Canadians have personally experienced, where the CRA aggressively pursues regular people for small amounts of tax owing, while offering amnesty and anonymity for those involved in sophisticated offshore tax schemes.

In the five years from 2013-2018, the CRA accepted voluntary disclosures from 140 people who were already being audited, and waived $17 million they owed in interest and penalties.

The voluntary disclosures program, which encourages tax cheats to come clean by pledging not to prosecute them and offering to waive some or all of their penalties, has since changed its rules to prevent those who are already being audited from taking part.

“Does the CRA have a culture of conveniently ignoring tax-evaders who have the means to hire a lawyer?” asked Green Party Leader Elizabeth May in reaction to the report. “The CRA needs to shift its Sheriff of Nottingham approach to tax-collection and have the rich pay their fair share rather than concentrate audits on hardworking Canadians because it’s easier to have them pay.”

In response to the report, Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier pledged to “ensure that our tax system is fair for everyone, throughout Canada.”

Ferguson’s team put together a list of eight recommendations that focused on the lack of consistency in how the CRA applies tax law. Consistency, the auditors pointed out, is enshrined in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. They nevertheless found wide discrepancies in how people were treated by the CRA depending on their region and activities.

In one example cited, the CRA gave regular taxpayers 90 days to produce a receipt and automatically disallowed the deduction if it wasn’t provided in time.

But those with offshore transactions were given much more time to produce documents, and that timeframe “was sometimes extended for months or even years.”

“Sometimes, the agency did not obtain information at all, and the file was closed without any taxes assessed,” the report stated.

On average, the CRA took more than 18 months to complete audits that included offshore activity.

“The CRA continuously strives to apply the law consistently while taking taxpayers’ individual circumstances into account,” Lebouthillier said in a statement. “The agency will review its internal processes and procedures to ensure its compliance work follows sound and transparent processes.”

Since the Panama Papers were made public in 2016, the Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has added more than $1 billion to the CRA’s budget to crack down on tax cheats, with a focus on those using complex offshore schemes.

In the last two years, the CRA says it has collected $21.5 billion in additional revenues from the stepped-up audits and other compliance activities.

But Ferguson’s report says those numbers are not only imprecise — based on estimates rather than actual revenue — they’re also overstated.

“The additional revenue the agency reported … did not reflect the taxes that it could not collect from taxpayers. This means that the impact on the government’s fiscal results was significantly less than what the agency estimated,” the report stated.

The auditors found the CRA reported at least $1.3 billion in additional revenue that was never collected.

“This previously reported additional revenue will never be collected because the assessments were overturned through the objection process,” the report said.

Lebouthillier agreed that reporting could be improved.

“I agree with the auditor general’s recommendations related to improving reporting and processes,” Lebouthillier said in a statement. “The CRA has already started to produce more strategic performance indicators, such as the tax gap estimates launched in 2016. The CRA will continue to build on this work with additional estimates to better report on our successes to Canadians.”

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Marco Chown Oved is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @marcooved


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Alberta NDP MLA Brian Mason warns of tough spring election ahead


Alberta NDP Government House Leader Brian Mason, in his farewell address to the party he once led, urged members to prepare for a spring vote fight that will be both daunting and bruising.

“We have a wonderful legacy and we want to add to that legacy, but it is under threat,” Mason told delegates Saturday at the party’s annual convention, held at a downtown Edmonton hotel convention centre.

“And there’s no question about it – this is going to be a tough election.”

Edmonton group monitoring number of women and men running for Alberta’s next election

Premier Rachel Notley is expected to call an election early next year. Opposition Leader Jason Kenney‘s United Conservatives have been strong in opinion polls, running on a platform to roll back a number of initiatives launched by Notley, including the carbon tax.

Mason – with former Alberta NDP leaders Ray Martin and Raj Pannu, and Notley beside him – lauded the current government’s policies, including workplace protections, building infrastructure, economic diversification, recognizing minority rights and its climate change policy.

He said the opposite will take place under a Kenney government.

“He (Kenney) wants cuts, he wants privatization, he wants to move fast so that the opposition doesn’t have a chance to get organized, and he won’t blink,” said Mason.

“Have we seen this movie before? Well, it’s a horror movie and we don’t want to see it again. The movie is called ‘Ralph Klein: The Sequel,’” Mason said, referencing the steep budget cuts imposed by Klein when he took the reins as premier in the early 1990s.

Raucous crowd in Calgary hears Doug Ford, Jason Kenney rail against carbon tax at rally

Mason also criticized Kenney for what he called his “flirtation with extremist groups,” such as the anti-immigration Soldiers of Odin, climate-change deniers and anti-abortion activists.

“There is an element to the UCP that is very disturbing and very frightening, and something that Jason Kenney has refused to disavow,” said Mason.

“We have so much at stake, really we do.”

UCP nomination candidate turfed in pub night controversy: ‘Polite racist is still racist’

Some candidates running for UCP nominations in recent months have been disqualified or allowed to run despite previous intolerant comments about groups such as Muslims or members of the LGBTQ community.

Kenney has made it clear his party will not countenance hateful views, and has said if elected his caucus will pursue a spending freeze or modest cuts in order to get the current multibillion-dollar budget deficits back to balance.

How do Alberta’s political parties vet their candidates?

Mason will not run in the election, ending three decades in public life, first as an Edmonton city councillor and then moving to provincial politics in 2000. He is the longest serving current member in the house.

About 1,200 NDP members are attending the convention to debate and pass resolutions and literally pass the hat – or in this case a bucket – for donations.

Delegates passed a number of constitutional changes and policy resolutions, including support for a national pharmacare plan and extending medicare to dental and optic care.

Notley, along with Finance Minister Joe Ceci, spoke to delegates in a short question-and-answer session in the afternoon.

Alberta NDP’s Brian Mason won’t be running in next election

Notley reiterated a number of policy positions, saying the decision to run up capital spending and budget deficits, while investing in innovation and diversification, and hiking the minimum wage, have borne results.

“The proof, my friends, is in the pudding,” said Notley.

“Our province led the country in growth last year, is leading the country in growth this year, is projected to lead the country in growth next year and is projected to lead the country in growth the year after that.”

Notley will address delegates in a speech Sunday.


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Heavy snow delays harvest after tough season for Alberta farmers


Farmers in Alberta are racing against the clock to harvest their crops after heavy rain and snow in September left fields too wet to work.

The wet weather delays followed a dry summer that already had farmers bracing for a hit to their yields.

Kevin Bender, who farms west of Red Deer and is the chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said his farm has been shut down for about three weeks, with only about a quarter of his acreage harvested.

« Sept. 9 is the last time we’d combined, » Bender said.

« We had three or four snowstorms and cold weather … but we’ve been able to get back on canola last Sunday night, and trying to race the clock and get as much done as we can until the next precipitation hits us. »

Crop insurance top of mind

Farmer Ian Chitwood of Airdrie said some parts of his property got upward of 30 centimetres of snow.

« We have not combined a single bushel yet this year, » he told Alberta@Noon on Friday.

« Insurance is on top of a lot of producer’s minds right now. Every day we’re losing daylight, we’re losing some heat, it could get into where producers are starting to claim partial crop losses, I think panic is starting to set in right now. »

Provincially, about 40 per cent of crops have been harvested so far, according to the latest crop report. That’s about 40 per cent behind when compared to the five-year average, with some regions as much as 58 per cent behind.

Can’t see the graph below? Click here.

And, the wet conditions mean crop quality was on the decline and expected to drop even further, the report said, with malt barley, oats and canola being graded below average.

John Guelly, the vice-chair of Alberta Canola who farms canola, malt barley and wheat in the Westlock area, said he’s experienced tough conditions in 2016 and 2017 as well but he expects this year to be even worse.

« It could be a lot of crop out over the winter unless we’re able to get some decent weather. And a little bit of precipitation right now really hurts because the days are so short, » Guelly said.

Bender said he’ll be hoping for warm dry weather and wind.

« It’ll be really tough, » he said.

« At this point as long as there’s snow on top of the canopy, on top of the grain, we can’t even go out and try it. »

With files from Andrew Brown, Alberta@Noon.


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