You’d never have guessed it, but Councillor Doug Holyday — long-time stormtrooper of council’s right guard — is apparently a raging metrosexual. There’s no other charitable explanation for his approach to one of our city’s chronic social crises: on his way to work from Etobicoke each day, Holyday can’t help but notice Toronto’s growing homeless population; about 80 of these desperate souls with nowhere else to go sleep directly outside the architecturally significant doors of his office, exposed to the elements save for donated blankets or makeshift coverings of newspapers. Surveying the living conditions of these lonely and broken people drawn to the protective awning, bright lights and security-patrolled safety of the city’s public square, Holyday sees a problem of aesthetics.

Holyday announced to the press earlier this month that the people of Toronto (by which we assume he means those who, like him, have jobs and homes and clean, pressed clothes to wear) and tourists to the city shouldn’t have to see and smell vagrants outside City Hall. He called the fact that the city tolerates such open displays of poverty in civic spaces “a total disgrace.”

So Hollywood Holyday proposes an Xtreme makeover that would wash those bums right out of the square: Cop’s Eye for the Homeless Guy, in which security, police and social workers would harass or arrest those unsightly drifters into going somewhere else; to the even filthier and dangerous shelter system, to parks or shop doorways elsewhere in the city or to jail. Then, presumably, a clean-up crew would remove the non-human garbage that remains in the square and the more upstanding citizens and out-of-town guests of Toronto would gather (as in the climax of makeover shows on television) and marvel at the fabulousity that hath been wrought.

The indigent out of sight, Holyday will then be able to travel to and from work without crossing paths with the needy while the editorial board of The Toronto Sun could crow about how he’d solved the homeless problem. Yet while the credits roll on Holyday’s reality show, of course, those without homes will continue to live and die on the streets.

This proposal is complete rubbish, even by Holyday’s standards. We can acknowledge, as Holyday does, that the homeless problem is not easy to deal with. (And by “homeless problem,” we mean something different than disagreeable sights and smells — we mean the real, life-threatening hardships experienced by those with no place to live.) The city already spends something more than $7 million per year in trying to help the homeless, yet their ranks continue to swell.

Concerned people can have genuine disagreements on how to better approach the problem, on whether the psychiatric system needs to be revised, whether building more affordable or supportive housing would help or whether revamping the welfare system is any kind of solution. But Holyday’s proposal does not even properly belong in the debate. To him, homeless people are the problem, rather than victims of it; they offend our sensibilities through their poverty in a way that he feels should be seen as criminal.

He overlooks the simple truth that, though they may be plagued by problems that keep them from functioning in a way we see as normal, though they may not have much in the way of private property, though they may have few stable personal relationships (and yes, even though they look grubby and often smell bad), they still enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship. Much as Holyday may rail that the citizens of Toronto shouldn’t have to put up with the homeless, the homeless are citizens of Toronto. As such, they share the right to make use of public spaces, such as parks and sidewalks and even Nathan Phillips Square.

Moreover, by pitching their cardboard tents at City Hall, rather than in scarcely travelled industrial districts, the homeless provide a constant reminder to fellow citizens, to guests looking to learn about how life is lived in Toronto and, most importantly, to our politicians; a reminder that we, together as citizens, have a problem in urgent need of remedy.

Until that remedy arrives, we think City Hall is the absolute best place for the homeless to sleep. If only two people remained homeless, we would suggest they sleep on council’s doorstep. Let those who work at City Hall, those we have charged with dealing with problems of poverty and housing and mental health, be constantly reminded that not enough has been done, that terrible, preventable suffering remains.

And if Doug Holyday doesn’t like the way they smell and look when they sleep in Nathan Phillips Square, he should find them somewhere else to stay.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial on August 19, 2004 in Eye Weekly

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