Community antipoverty work

Yesterday I attended an action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which is a community antipoverty organization based in Toronto. OCAP does advocacy work, “direct action casework” to help poor people access their rights to welfare, immigration, housing, or workplace compensation. It also does mass mobilizations to try to open housing and, importantly, build political pressure for more systemic solutions to the problem of homelessness and poverty in the city of Toronto.


Yesterday I attended an action by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, which is a community antipoverty organization based in Toronto. OCAP does advocacy work, “direct action casework” to help poor people access their rights to welfare, immigration, housing, or workplace compensation. It also does mass mobilizations to try to open housing and, importantly, build political pressure for more systemic solutions to the problem of homelessness and poverty in the city of Toronto.

Yesterday’s action was to open a squat. About 300 people gathered at the All Saints Church in downtown Toronto at lunch time. After a meal and some speeches, we marched. It was cold, but we had a bagpiper and some good drummers (or at least noisemakers). The building chosen for the squat (which most of us didn’t know beforehand) was a huge, vacant, former police headquarters right downtown, whose current owner is none other than the City of Toronto itself, which is planning to sell the place at a profit. Meanwhile homelessness grows, the winter gets colder, and, as OCAP’s workers and constituents don’t have the luxury so many of us have of forgetting, people are dying on the street.

In major urban centres like Toronto and elsewhere in the city, there is unemployment, but it is not the problem that it is in less central places. Instead, the problem is – as Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles in her book “Nickel and Dimed” – no job you can get pays enough to pay the rent, which is high and always going up. In Canada, unlike the US, there is more of a welfare state to protect people from this economy, but it is being targeted and destroyed here as everywhere else. The government could intervene in many different ways, and there are promises from various levels of government that buildings will be renovated, rents will be subsidized (actually the plan is to subsidize landlords by giving them the balance between the rent they charge and what the renter can pay). But it just all seems so slow to happen.

As one of the OCAPers pointed out yesterday, it’s amazing how slow the government is to act on housing, considering the speed with which it can mobilize the police to kick homeless people out of an abandoned building. I can certainly attest to the “government efficiency” of the police: the action was very well planned on the part of OCAP, but squatters had been in the building for a matter of minutes before police forced their way between demonstrators and the building (using muscle and pepper spray), entered the building, and began arresting and dragging squatters out of the building. 16 were arrested this way, though I’ve heard most of them have been released.

If only they had that kind of energy, speed, and decisive action when it came time to house people, as opposed to kick them out of places.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.

3 thoughts on “Community antipoverty work”

  1. Here’s another illustration
    Here’s another illustration of how the slow action by the Ontario government on housing is entirely deliberate, comparing an event that got attention because it inconvenienced middle-class people and industry to one that has the much less imoprtant (to them) impact of killing poor people. It is taken from a report I wrote last year:

    “Homelessness was declared a national disaster by the mayors of Canada’s ten largest cities in 1998. Since then, the problem has worsened dramatically. Advocates have reported one death per week in the winter months on the streets of Toronto, and unknown additional casualities in the rest of the province. The link between homelessness and increased morbidity and mortality has been clearly established in the research literature. Yet despite five years of growing crisis, homelessness musters a fraction of the political attention garnered by 24 hours without electricity.

    “The Ontario-wide power outage in August 2003 merited swift government response, especially given its heightened impact on citizens with lower incomes, but it is an indictment of this province’s political culture that the power outage led to an official state of emergency and incessant posturing by politicians to appear most decisive and effective in the fact of crisis, but regular deaths on the street merit barely a mention. As a result of the former, money was quickly dispersed to municipalities and the federal government was vigorously petitioned for large and immediate infusions of cash. To the latter, the federal response has been welcome but less than most advocates deem necessary, and the provincial response has been largely non-existent.”

    And, yes, I do realize that the final sentence is too soft on the feds, who actually did a lot to cause the crisis to begin with, but the report in question was funded with federal dollars and the person supervising me insisted my original, harsher version be sweetened up.

  2. The 7-year Squat here in
    The 7-year Squat here in Ottawa at least lasted a few weeks. Plus, those arrested managed to defend themselves so effectively that at least part of a jury was convinced that there was a necessity to their actions that made occupation of private property not a crime. In a society based on the sanctity of private property that is pretty spectacular.

    It also reflects some acceptance of the idea that the police are always right: something almost all of us are taught as children. The squatters, in their defiance and the subsequent hung jury were partially vindicated in their actions.

    I hope OCAP regroups and is undeterred.

  3. The 7-year Squat here in
    The 7-year Squat here in Ottawa at least lasted a few weeks. Plus, those arrested managed to defend themselves so effectively that at least part of a jury was convinced that there was a necessity to their actions that made occupation of private property not a crime. In a society based on the sanctity of private property that is pretty spectacular.

    It also reflects some acceptance of the idea that the police are NOT always right: something almost all of us are taught as children. The squatters, in their defiance and the subsequent hung jury were partially vindicated in their actions.

    I hope OCAP regroups and is undeterred.

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