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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.”

Resisting Revitalized Bigotry in the Downtown East

Thursday, October 17 | 6pm-8pm | CRC, 40 Oak Street
[Free event with meal, childminding, wheelchair access, and tokens]
Facebook Event

Toronto’s downtown east is changing rapidly. The historic Regent Park social housing is being reduced to rubble and the “mixed-income” imagination of politicians is coming alive. Towers with a combination of ownership condos and rental units for former social housing tenants have risen, with more on the way.

Mitchell Cohen, the president of Daniel’s Corporation, sold his company’s revitalization plan as one that would make “tenants and owners feel at home with each other and in their community.” But the residents of Daniel’s new building at Parliament and Dundas installed spikes on the large tree planters downstairs. Neighbours and passerby’s would sit around those planters to rest, drink coffee or have conversations. Now they can’t.

Not far away, Dundas and Sherbourne has turned into a battleground. Residents who control the Cabbagetown South Residents’ Association want to shut down a health centre and respite site that serve the homeless at that corner. They don’t want poor people in crisis in the area. The City responded with more police, the Province cut funding for the overdose prevention site, the health centre put up a fence, and the respite site cut its capacity. Not satisfied, the Association now collaborates with Toronto Sun’s Sue Ann Levy who writes articles denigrating poor people as dirty, drug-addicted and dangerous.

Area residents have two choices: we either build solidarity or escalate hostility. We invite all those who choose the former to join us to discuss how we can do so.

Speakers: Gaetan Heroux and A.J. Withers

Gaetan Heroux has worked in the downtown east for over three decades, a longtime organizer with OCAP, and co-author of Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History.

A.J. Withers is an longtime OCAP organizer and author of stillmyrevolution.org, and two books: Radical Disability Politics and Theory and A Violent History of Benevolence.

Expropriate 214-230 Sherbourne: Outdoor Film Screening

Friday, Aug 23 | 8:30pm | 230 Sherbourne St.
Dinner Provided | Facebook Event

OCAP is fighting to stop the sale of 214-230 Sherbourne – a series of 7 vacant properties at the southwest corner of Dundas and Sherbourne – to condo developers. Instead, we’ve proposed a plan that would build between 150 to 260 units of public-owned rent-geared-to-income housing on that land. The fight won’t be easy, but we can take inspiration from battles of the past and present.

So join us for an outdoor summer movie screening, complete with dinner and popcorn, at the site as we feature short films that profile resistance that stopped evictions and forced the City to build public housing.

Note: The event will be postponed in case of rain.

Launched: Development Proposal for 214-230 Sherbourne

Download Report | Media: CP24 | CTV | Toronto Star | CBC
Deputations to Planning & Housing Committee: Here & Here

We launched our community-driven development proposal for building public housing at 214-230 Sherbourne at city hall yesterday, July 3, 2019. The report that lays out the plan for building between 150 to over 260 units of rent-geared-to-income housing at the site can be downloaded here. The proposal is a product of a collaboration between OCAP, the Open Architecture Collaborative Toronto (OACTo), and allied academics, and activists. It’s design was informed by feedback provided by nearly 100 people in sessions organized in Regent Park, and at the All Saints church drop-in centre. The proposal can radically transform Dundas and Sherbourne into a vibrant community by including its most vulnerable residents, rather than at their expense.

It’s a vision we will fight for, 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.

Dinner With A View…Of The Rich

Friday, April 5 | 6:30pm | The Bentway (250 Fort York Blvd.)
Facebook Event

What does $550 get you in Toronto you ask? The creators of a pop-up restaurant have the answer. A chichi dinner for 4 under the Gardiner in a little heated dome designed to look like a terrarium and furnished for comfort. They call it “Dinner with a View.”

What sort of view you ask? Well, not of the homeless camp, obviously. The City demolished that and evicted the people living there two weeks ago, remember?

What are we going to do it about you ask? You ask a lot of questions, but we’ll tell you. We’re inviting you to join us for a free 3-course dinner under the Gardiner.

Our chefs aren’t Top Chef Canada winners, but they do win at human decency. Together we’ll eat, be lively, and take in the view of the brazenness of the wealthy and the brutality of the city.

Bring your noisemakers and email us your music requests. While you’re at it, email Mayor Tory (mayor_tory@toronto.ca) and tell him we need adequate shelters and rent-geared-to-income housing.

First We Visit QE, Then We Take Metro Hall

Tuesday, April 9 | 7pm | Queen Elizabeth Respite Site (185 Princes’ Blvd)
Rally & Community Meal

Friday, April 12 | 1pm | Metro Hall (55 John Street)
Rally. Lunch Provided

The City is shutting down the homeless respite site at the Queen Elizabeth (QE) building mid-April. The 200 people who stay there don’t know where they are supposed to go next.

Plans are also in place to end respite service at 545 Lakeshore W and 354 George St. this spring. Over 300 people stay at the two sites. 500 other homeless people are facing eviction from a city-rented motel. With remaining respites, drop-ins and shelters full, homeless people have nowhere to go but back to the streets.

The City says it has a “comprehensive plan,” for respite users but hasn’t provided any details. We need those details given the City also said it would have 3 respite domes open by January. Only one opened, and the City still can’t commit to a date for opening the other two.

We need adequate shelters and rent-geared-to-income housing. Mayor Tory’s plans build neither. This deadly housing crisis demands action: first, we visit QE (on April 9), then we take Metro Hall (April 12). Join us.

Townhall: Ford’s Attack on Social Assistance

Wednesday, December 5 | 6pm-8pm | St.Luke’s Church, 353 Sherbourne St.
Dinner Provided. Wheelchair Accessible Space
Facebook Event

The Ford government has announced its planned changes to social assistance. It is clear they intend to use social assistance as a weapon in their war on the poor. OCAP’s analysis of the announcement can be read here.

Join us to help make sense of the cuts being proposed, and to talk about how we’re going to fight back.