OCAP | Gentrification
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is a direct action anti-poverty organization that fights for more shelter beds, social housing, and a raise in social assistance rates.
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Response to the Toronto Sun & Sue-Ann Levy’s Cease and Desist Letter

By A.J. Withers for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty

Last week, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) put up posters in the city’s downtown east neighbourhood calling Sue Ann Levy – Toronto Sun’s columnist – a “bigot.” The posters were a response to a series of articles in which Levy disparages homeless people at Dundas and Sherbourne and agitates against critical services they rely on. The posters depict a photo of Levy, made to look somewhat like a mug shot, with the word “bigot” underneath. The imagery follows the tradition of satirical protest posters that name the offences of public figures. The posters describe Levy’s bigotry and encourage readers to “Build Inclusive Communities” and “Say yes to services, no to bigots.”

On Saturday, October 12, the Toronto Sun and Levy sent a cease and desist letter via their lawyer to OCAP. The letter claims that the “poster contains a number of false and seriously defamatory statements” without specifying what they are. The letter also claims the poster “impl[ies] she is a criminal.”

On September 27, Levy told me in an email interview that “Bigot has become yet another label tossed around by ‘special interest groups’ to try to silence those with a point of view different from their own.” The irony seems lost on her as she and the Sun demand that all of the posters be destroyed and OCAP not “state or imply that Ms. Levy is a bigot” in the future, including at our public meeting on October 17th.

Levy’s reaction is noteworthy because she is known to hurl insults. She’s called the leader of the federal Green Party “looney Liz,” referred to provincial opposition members as “the nuts in Horwath’s caucus,”[1] called fellow journalists “asshats,” and routinely calls homeless advocates, including OCAP, “poverty pimps,” and even called OCAP “poverty terrorists.” But Levy’s response to having her bigotry being named is to claim defamation. But it isn’t defamation if it is true. Merriam-Webster defines “bigot” as “one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” OCAP argues this is what Levy does.

“For a number of months there have been attacks against people who use services in the neighbourhood,” says long-time OCAP organizer, Gaétan Héroux. He tells me wealthy property owners, buoyed by Sue-Ann Levy, have been targeting homeless people and trying to close the services they rely on in an effort to push them out of the area. “It is discriminatory and prejudicial and there is a history of residents in this neighbourhood attacking these services going back to the 1990s and before,” says Héroux.

Levy has a penchant for using inflammatory rhetoric to sensationalize stories, often at the expense of poor and marginalized people, who are portrayed in ways that are that are dehumanizing, degrading or just plain inaccurate. She frequently denigrates homeless people as “transients” and “addicts,” and pits them as oppositional or even dangerous to “residents.” Further, she routinely calls refugees “(illegal) migrants,” especially those who are homeless. Levy uses stigmatizing terms to cast poor people as villains; but, generally she has no idea what the circumstances of the individuals she is writing about are, and she doesn’t seem to ask.

Levy’s work is demonstrably legitimizing and whipping up hate. One 2018 column by Levy decrying the City creating a new respite site for homeless people contained multiple comments calling for mass murder. “Cull the bums and the drug addicts” one person declared. Twenty-three people liked this comment which, not coincidentally, it would seem, uses language for killing animal populations rather than people. Levy’s August 13, 2019 article declaring Toronto is “a city of enablers” had a comment, also with 23 likes, calling for “tough love…if that doesn’t work, give them a safe injection of overdose.”

Screenshot of the first several comments from: Sue-Ann Levy, “City building 2.5M pre-fab for transients in public park,” Toronto Sun, Sept. 19, 2018.

Is Levy responsible for these calls to kill homeless people and drug users? No. Did she contribute to a climate in which dehumanizing these groups is okay? Absolutely. “If you’re already going pretty far towards dehumanization… its not a stretch to think some people might go another step further than that, however that might manifest,” says Jonathan Goldsbie, a journalist covering the media and News Editor for Canadaland.

When OCAP made Levy aware of the comments for the 2018 article (cc’ing the Deputy Editor), it appears she did nothing about it. It was only when OCAP contacted the Vice President of Editorial at the Sun that the comments were removed – 5 days later. Levy says she has “no record” of OCAP contacting her about the comments. She did not indicate she would take any action to address these hateful statements. The comment for the August 13 article remains up; she was made aware of it on September 25.

Let’s not forget her notorious October 2018 article in which Levy falsely claimed that homeless refugees staying in the Radisson Hotel were slaughtering goats in the public washroom of the hotel. This claim, evoking the racist imagery of Muslim “irregular (a.k.a. illegal) migrants,” was based on an unverified Trip Advisor review. The hotel was firebombed on the night of Oct 2. The National NewsMedia Council found Levy committed a “serious breach of journalistic standards for accuracy in reporting” for effectively publishing hearsay as news.[2]

Levy told me her goat slaughter “article was published on Oct. 3/18.” The Toronto Sun website also says this. According to this timeline, the hotel had been firebombed the night before. In actuality, the article was published October 2, the day before the arson attack (a discrepancy that was first noticed by Canadaland). Levy would not respond to my questions about the publication date change. When I confronted her with proof and asked for her to clarify, she stopped answering altogether, saying: “I’ve answered your questions to the best of my ability and have spent considerable time doing so.” It’s possible that the publication date was changed on the Sun’s website in error. It is also possible, but improbable, that Levy misremembers the publication date as well as her October 2nd tweet promoting the article. Levy has written that it is “contemptible” to try to link her article to the arson. Indeed, there is no evidence connecting the two.

But there is a profound hypocrisy in Levy and the Sun making the claim that there is no link between the arson and Levy’s article. On one hand, Toronto Sun Editor-in-chief Adrienne Batra told journalist Sarah Krichel that speculation of a direct link between the ‘goat slaughter’ article and the arson attack is “utter bullshit.” On the other hand, the cease and desist letter OCAP received claims that “it is foreseeable” that Levy, a public figure whose photo is all over the internet, “will be targeted and harassed… and such confrontations could result in Ms. Levy being physically harmed” because of the poster. While Levy and the Sun can speculate Levy may have negative interactions in response to the poster, it is indisputable that the arson did occur.

Levy has been writing about poor and homeless people for a long time but lately has focused on those in the Dundas and Sherbourne area and two essential services they rely on: the Margaret’s homeless respite site and Street Health clinic. Street Health’s overdose prevention site (OPS), the smallest in the city, saved about a life a week during its first year of operation. But the vocal residents’ association was successful getting its provincial funding terminated, even though Street Health says it has comprehensively responded to their concerns. In the midst of a deadly homelessness crisis caused, in part, by a shortage of shelter space, Margaret’s reduced its capacity from 50 to 35 to appease the residents’ association. The respite site now also plays classical music on the street to deter its own residents from using the space immediately outside the building (and, I’m told, for both the entertainment and pacification of those who stay). The result: fewer indoor places for people to stay and a more hostile outdoor environment.

Still, Levy condemns Street Health for the “dizzying tsunami of drug addicts, sex workers and drug dealers” and Margaret’s for the people outside. She claims to have followed a woman off of the TTC to Street Health and posts photos of homeless people on her twitter, seemingly without their consent but with disparaging commentary.

Levy isn’t big on empirical evidence, but her stories are full of anecdotes from, as Goldsbie observes, “seemingly random people.” But, Goldsbie says, “She tends to place their comfort” – the comfort of property owners or ‘taxpayers’ “much higher than the health and safety of people involved on the street… that’s very evident in the writing.” While Levy often couches the concerns of these wealthier area residents talking about things ‘getting worse’ after respite sites or OPSs open up near them in the context of safety, Goldsbie says it is about making things “clean and pristine and not sullied by poverty.”

Levy blames homeless people for the situation they’re in and not the housing crisis. She tells me, for instance, that “the lack of affordable housing has been used as an excuse for street sleepers for 20 years.” Her ideological position is contradicted by the evidence which clearly shows that the housing crisis is driving homelessness. The great irony, of course, is that things will keep getting worse at Dundas and Sherbourne and in many other neighbourhoods in Toronto. This not because the neighbourhoods have OPSs or other essential, even life saving, services for poor people and refugees but because we are in the midst of a housing and shelter crisis coupled with disastrously low social assistance rates. Premier Doug Ford, who both Levy and the Sun seem to support, could alleviate these problems yet he, like Levy, scapegoats refugees and blames poor people for the conditions they are abandoned in.

Meanwhile, Gaétan Héroux says OCAP will continue to “fight to defend our communities.”

[1] While Levy expressed concern for people with mental health issues to me, she denigrates them through her use of this language.

[2] It also upheld a separate complaint against Levy for calling a homeless advocate a “poverty pimp.” Levy told me the complaint was “vexatious especially considering I’ve used the same term for years.”

A Development Proposal For 214-230 Sherbourne: Launch

Wednesday, July 3 | 9am | City Hall, Outside Committee Room 1 (2nd floor)
Toronto Star article
Press conference at 9am, deputations to Planning and Housing Committee at 9:30am

Following months of work, the collaboration between OCAP, the Open Architecture Collaborative Toronto (OACTo), and allied academics and activists has achieved its goal: creating a development proposal with the potential to radically transform Dundas and Sherbourne for the benefit of its most vulnerable residents, rather than at their expense.

Hand-scaled model of the development proposal.

Join us tomorrow to support the launch of the final report, to unveil the hand-scaled model of the proposed development, and to demand that council start by expropriating the properties.

The proposal lays out plans for building between 150 to over 260 units of publicly-owned rent-geared-to-income units to house poor and homeless people at 214-230 Sherbourne Street, a series of seven vacant properties steps from the southwest intersection of Dundas and Sherbourne. The final design for the site was informed by design feedback sessions organized in the Regent Park and the Dundas and Sherbourne area, with nearly 100 people offering feedback on four aspects of the development proposal: overall building form, ground floor programs, public space qualities, and domestic space qualities.

214-230 Sherbourne have been a historic part of Toronto’s poor and working class people living and dying at Dundas and Sherbourne. We will fight to make sure these properties will also be part of their future. Join us.

FAQ, For Dinner With A View

A response to some frequently asked questions about Dinner With A View:

Why are you doing the action on April 5?

We’re doing it because in our City homeless people living under the Gardiner with no heat are evicted. Meanwhile pop-up restaurants serving ritzy dinners in heated domes under that same highway are granted permits. Such brazenness begs a challenge and we’re happy to oblige.

Why take issue if the homeless camp wasn’t located at the Bentway?

There were multiple homeless camps under the Gardiner this past winter – from Jarvis in the east-end to Spadina in the west-end – and the City evicted them. For years, homeless people and advocates have also been calling for the City to open up the armouries as temporary shelter. The pop-up restaurant sits at the doorstep of the Fort York armoury.

Is the action unfair to the people who paid for a novel dining experience?

On the one hand you have homeless people whose tents were demolished and who were evicted with nowhere else to go. On the other hand you have people with sufficient disposable income to splurge over $550 on a single meal and who’re facing the possibility of their luxurious dining spectacle being tainted. The answer to who the situation is unfair to is clear.

Put another way, did the restaurant patrons personally evict the homeless from the under the Gardiner? No. Is their chichi dining experience close to where people people were often hungry and cold, crass? Yes. Do they deserve to be mocked for their obliviousness to the suffering around them? Absolutely.

But isn’t your beef with the City?

Yes, particularly with Mayor John Tory and his backers on Council who’ve allowed Toronto’s housing crisis to turn deadly. They deserve our wrath and we must demand that they build adequate emergency shelters and rent-geared-to-income housing.

Why not go to City Hall?

We have enough trespass tickets from City Hall to prove we go there often and have also slept-out outside one of Mayor Tory’s multi-million dollar homes. On Friday, April 12 at 1pm we’re going to Metro Hall to demand the City keep homeless respite sites open, expropriate a vacant property, and build rent-geared-to-income housing. We invite everyone to join us there too.

There are many fancy restaurants in Toronto, why single this one out?

You got us. Boorishness by the wealthy shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere. Our society desensitizes us to poverty and we accept outlandish things as normal. Luxury dining domes under the Gardiner would be a new frontier in this desensitization, and we intend to not cross it.

Rally: Expropriate 214-230 Sherbourne!

Download Flyer | Download Poster | Facebook Event

214 – 230 Sherbourne are 7 adjacent properties located at the southwest corner of Dundas and Sherbourne. For at least 50 years, three big houses on this lot provided housing for poor people. About 10 years ago, two of the houses were demolished, leaving just one 30-room house whose residents were then pushed out.

A decade later the lot remains empty and the house vacant. Meanwhile, the church across from it struggles to shelter the escalating numbers of people dumped on the streets by Toronto’s deadly housing crisis. The neighbourhood desperately needs housing that poor people can afford. So when the properties were listed for sale earlier this year, OCAP mobilized to get the City to purchase them. But the owners took the properties off the market, preferring to sell to condo developers willing to pay more than the already inflated market price.

If the owners won’t sell to the City, the City must take the properties over – expropriate them – and build social housing. The owners still get paid but the end result is housing for poor people, and not another gentrifying condo. 27 organizations have signed an open letter calling on the City to expropriate. It’s time.

Join us on October 11, and let’s fight to win!

Speakers Series: Rent Strikes, Expropriations & More: Resisting Gentrification

Rent Strikes, Expropriations & More: Resisting Gentrification
Thursday, September 20 | 6pm – 8pm | CRC, 40 Oak St.
[Free event with meal, childcare, wheelchair access and tokens]
Facebook event | Download Flyer | Audio Archive

Bringing together struggles against gentrification unfolding in neighbourhoods in Toronto and Hamilton, this Speakers Series will profile successful models of resistance people are using to push back and win. Join us!

Speakers: Julia Manzo, Linda Habibi, Bjarke Risager, , and Gaetan Heroux

Julia Manzo is a resident of Parkdale, and one of the organizers of the successful rent strike in Parkdale last year. She is also a member of Parkdale Organize.

Linda Habibi is a tenant and strike captain in the Stoney Creek Towers in Hamilton, where tenants are currently on a rent strike. Details about their rent strike can be found here: facebook.com/hamiltontenantssolidarity/ and here: hamiltontenantssolidarity.ca

Bjarke Risager is an organizer with the Hamilton Tenants Solidarity Network.

Gaetan Heroux is a member of OCAP and has worked and fought for housing in the downtown east end of Toronto for over three decades.

The monthly Speakers Series is where we gather to discuss issues that are critical to the success of poor people’s movements. It’s where we build our capacity to fight to win. 

Postponed: Press Conference to Respond to Vilification of Homeless People & Poor People Who Use Drugs

Update – Monday, July 23: Given the shooting on the Danforth last night, the press conference referenced below is being postponed to a later date.

Coalition of anti-poverty organizers, supervised injection and overdose prevention site workers, homeless service providers to respond to increasing vilification of homeless people & other poor people who use drugs

Press conference on Monday, July 23 at 10am at the corner of Dundas & Sherbourne

Speakers include: A.J. Withers (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty), Desmond Cole, Frank Coburn (Street Health), and representatives from the Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site

Toronto: There have been a series of lurid stories in the media recently of homeowners and businesses supposedly under attack by what the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy calls “druggies.”

These articles further the position that supervised injection services (SIS) and overdose prevention sites (OPS) must be shut down and call for the return of policing programs that have been proven to be dangerous and racist. Echoing rhetoric of residents and business associations in gentrifying neighbourhoods, particularly in the downtown east end of Toronto, it is argued that SIS and OPS facilities encourage drug use and it is assumed, without any evidence, that the lack of such options would lead people to give up drug use.

“After letting the developers control and profit from the creation of upscale housing, after allowing public housing to crumble, after letting social assistance income decline substantially, and after failing to provide adequate shelter for the homeless for years, refugees have become a convenient target to blame for the problem. Now, the same interests are targeting poor and homeless people who use drugs, in a truly despicable move,” says A.J. Withers, organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

Homeless people, whether they use drugs or not, are on the streets because shelters and respite facilities are packed full, and conditions within most of them remain deplorable and stressful.

“The residents and business associations don’t want homeless people on the streets, but they don’t want shelters in their neighbourhoods either. What they want are policing measures that target and remove homeless people from sight, with no regard to where or how people end up. Such a dystopic vision for dealing with serious social issues begs to be challenged,” says Yogi Acharya, organizer with OCAP.

The aforementioned press conference, to be held on Monday, July 23 at 10am at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne, will respond to these arguments, make the case for the continued funding and operation of the SIS and OPS facilities, oppose the reintroduction of programs like the misleadingly named Toronto Anti-Violence Strategy (TAVIS), and finally, call for the creation of adequate shelter and housing.

Media Contact:
A.J. Withers & Yogi Acharya

Stop Vilification of Poor People Who Use Drugs

Toronto is in the midst of a housing crisis that expresses itself most sharply in massive and growing homelessness. As the shelters overflow, the disaster that this creates interacts with an overdose crisis that continues to claim lives. This disaster is now poised to get even worse at the hands of the Doug Ford Government, with its readiness to implement social cutbacks and its hostility to life saving safe injection initiatives.

Those in power and their media mouthpieces love to point the finger of blame at those who suffer the effects of austerity and abandonment. After letting the developers control and profit from the creation of upscale housing, after allowing public housing to crumble, after letting social assistance income decline substantially and after failing to provide adequate shelter for the homeless for years, refugees have become a convenient target to blame for the problem. Now, the same interests are targeting poor and homeless people who use drugs, in a truly despicable move.

Many in the media, with the Toronto Sun leading the pack, have been running lurid stories of homeowners and businesses under attack by what the Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy calls “druggies.” Another piece in the Sun went so far as to call for the death penalty for those who sell drugs and the main objective of these hateful articles is to try and shut down supervised injection services and overdose prevention sites. Levy argues that such facilities only encourage drug use and simply assumes, without any evidence, that the lack of safe options would cause people to give up drug use. In fact, the opposite is true – research in countries around the world has consistently shown that providing people who use drugs with compassionate, evidence-based healthcare like supervised injection services improves their health and helps people who want treatment to access it.

There is no real need to spend much time refuting the threadbare and ignorant arguments of people like Levy. We are really dealing with a hate campaign to whip up local vigilantes and encourage the intense criminalization of people who use drugs and the outright abandonment of the homeless. Supervised injection services only enable people in poverty to have some of the supports people who use drugs and have money enjoy, and they are desperately needed in midst of the present lethal crisis. In place of the class war crackdowns and denial of shelter and services the Sun is working for, and that Doug Ford and others in power want to deliver, we call for the following:

  1. Raise social assistance rates in Ontario so that people can afford to stay housed.
  2. Stop boarding up public housing and create real social housing to meet the need that exists.
  3. Open enough homeless shelter space so that the system is not running above 90% capacity.
  4. Open shelters mainly in the central area where they’re most needed with an emphasis on low barrier facilities.
  5. End the criminalization of people who use drugs and address the poisoned drug supply with evidence-based, harm reduction measures
  6. Legalize and regulate all drugs, rapidly develop prescription heroin and hydromorphone programs in Ontario.
  7. Extend the funding of current overdose prevention sites and expand access to SIS and OPS sites.
  8. Politicians must stop providing legitimacy to gentrifying residents and business interests organizing against homeless people and poor drug users
  9. Treat the kind of articles that have appeared in the Sun as incitement to hatred rather than journalism.

OCAP is calling for a press conference on Monday, July 23 at 10am at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne to support the continued operation of supervised injection sites, to oppose the re-introduction of programs like TAVIS, and to demand the creation of adequate shelter and housing.

Fight the Doug Ford Tories

Doug Ford is now Premier of Ontario and a hard right, class war Tory Government is in power. Our message is that their agenda of austerity, war on the poor, attacking workers’ gains, targeting migrants, gutting public services, racism, bigotry, environmental degradation and trampling on Indigenous rights, is inevitable only if we allow it to unfold without mounting the kind of real resistance that can bring it to a halt.

Comparisons are made to the Tory Governments in Ontario from 1995-2003. Let’s be clear that Ford represents something far worse. The international austerity agenda is far more advanced than during those years. We have also gone through fifteen years of ‘progressive’ Liberal cutbacks that have left their mark on public services like healthcare, ensured that people on social assistance are poorer than when the Tories left office and produced a housing and homeless crisis of terrible proportions. Frankly, there is very little flesh for Ford’s knife to cut into. It will be going into the bone.

When the Tories last held power, there was a powerful mobilization against them but it failed to stop them because it was held back by disunity and a failure to take things to the level necessary to win. A creature like Ford will not be stopped by moral arguments or token protest. A movement that creates serious economic disruption and a political crisis is what is needed. The Tory agenda must be blocked by a struggle that makes the Province ungovernable.

On June 16, Fight for $15 and Fairness will be rallying at the Ministry of Labour in Toronto. We should all work to build this action and use it as a springboard for Ontario wide resistance. OCAP is talking to allies about convening an Assembly to bring together those who want to fight back decisively. The most vital thing is that we must not let the Tories gain the initiative by remaining passive as they start their attacks.

Ontario is about to became a key site of struggle. We have the chance to demonstrate to the world that a vicious hard right austerity regime can be defeated by creating a model of resistance of enormous importance. Unless we want to go down in defeat at the hands of a gang of Tories headed up by a scandal ridden buffoon, we must be ready to fight to win and bring together a movement that can empty the workplaces and fill the streets.