City slides into skid row
By Don Weitz Seven News, December 17, 1977
Perhaps some city planners and alderpersons are finally starting to take a serious look at Toronto’s skid row areas and the people struggling to survive in them. And just perhaps, they’ll come up with some solid and humane proposals which will get translated into action.
I’ve deliberately said ‘perhaps’ because of at least three reasons: 1) Skid row has traditionally been a low-priority item on the city government’s social planning agenda; 2) the major characteristics and problems of skid-row experience have been sufficiently researched and well-known for many years, yet there’s been no real attack or breakthrough initiated and carried out by any level of government, and 3) there’s been no public commitment or outcry to do something constructive about people-on-the-skids – the “get’m out of our community” response has been a ‘solution’ typical of all too many ‘whitepainters’ (Hugh Garner’s ‘Intruders’) in Don Vale and other downtown, residential areas.
So, the fact the City Planning Board, led by Chief Planner Dennis Barker, just published its 32-page “Report On Skid Row” last month gives some cause for hope. This report is the Board’s response to a year-old request by the city’s Committee on Neighbourhoods, Housing, Fire and Legislation on get a fix on the “projected size of the population” and “number of units of housing...required” by the skid row population.
Re population guesstimates, the report claims there are “8 to 10 thousand men...classified as skid row types.” This figure is undoubtedly a serious underestimate, since the researchers admit they didn’t try finding or counting skid-rowers in rooming houses (where most people on-the-skids live). Furthermore, the report forgets or neglects to mention the fact that some women are also on skid row. “My guess is there are 150 women on the street, they’re usually found in a small area from Parliament to Sherbourne and Dundas to Queen...Take a look...I’ve seen them in All Saints Church, as young as 14 or 15...the vast majority are not visible because they can always find a place to sleep no matter whom it’s with.”
That’s Harvey (‘Alf’) Jackson talking; as an experienced, respected and committed community worker on skid row he should know. Harvey also disagrees with the report’s guesstimate of 8-10,000. He believes the actual potential skid row population may be as high as “80,000 if I take into account the poorer families, our future skid-row people...In Cabbagetown, I’d go as high as 20,000.”
Another alarming conclusion in the report is that a much greater proportion of young people (many in their teens) are ending up on the skids. “The skid row population could increase because the enculturation of a significant number of young, unemployed men is occurring more rapidly than deaths in the older, hard-core group.” A lot of kids out of work and from the Maritimes are ending up on the skids, which Harvey and other city community workers can document and worry about, but nobody knows the number, or percentage.
Also, the report barely touches on the emotionally charged issue of recently discharged “mental patients” ending up on the row. Harvey and Jerome Murray, another skid-row community worker, see many former patients thrown out of “mental hospitals” like Queen Street Mental Health Centre, Lakeshore Psychiatric and Whit by Psychiatric – which make little or no effort to place patients in decent, community houses or accepting communities – few as they are (there are only about 500 beds in Toronto in halfway and other houses for released “mental patients”).
As far as housing for the skid-row population is concerned, the report claims “there is currently a sufficient supply of basic shelter...much of it could be considered inadequate.” Yes, especially many rooming houses owned by absentee landlords who refuse to meet the city’s rooming house by-law standards. As a partial inventory of available housing, the report lists a total of “983” beds in hostels, as well as a “bed/head count of 177 on the night of May 6, 1977” – which includes 200 or more men sleeping outside in “illegitimate” places like parks, hallways, etc.
The report makes the useful observation that skid row is not restricted to the traditional, well-known “Eastern Downtown Area” (Queen-Yonge-Carlton-River), but has spread to other areas; e.g. Queen/Spadina, College/Spadina, Queen/Broadview, South Parkdale and the Junction around the stock yard.
Other major conclusions are that “poverty and lack of family ties characterize skid row individuals”, and that dependency on skid row institutions is definitely increasing – a common syndrome of social agency involvement.
Unlike most bureaucratic documents, the report comes up with some solid and practical recommendations which, if put into action could help stem the skid row tide – like creating a “Skid Row Prevention Centre” which stresses “early identification of those alienated young men who have begun to drift into skid row” and backed up with an “aggressive outreach programme” with staff “carefully chosen” for their “personal suitability”, establishing “store-front ‘emergency centres’ to meet the immediate needs of the hardcore skid rower; e.g., first aid, companionship, snacks, a safe place to sober up or flop...offered on a 24-hour-a-day basis” and run by “rehabilitated skid row individuals rather than by professional staff”, and a “Workers’ Co-operative” which would generate not only some livable wages but “encourage self-sufficiency and self-respect” as well. (The report responsibly includes relevant information on the successful Independent Co-Operative Enterprises inc. in Winnipeg which could serve as a useful model in Toronto).
But even if plans were put into action, ‘skid-rowers’ are likely to be among us indefinitely. Our present unemployment crisis is one major reason. Skid row community worker Harvey Jackson sees a direct link between growing unemployment and a growing skid row population. “This year with unemployment well over the million mark, we have a chance to go to 2 million which will enlarge or triple skid row as we know it today...Don’t forget skid row has grown with the 20 and 30 year-olds moving in...” Jackson is also critical of some of the more recent housing for skid-row men, like the 38-bed house at 179 Gerrard St. E. He believes, “it will fail, because it needs 24 hour-a-day staff people; it now has only one staff person part-time.”
The Planning Board’s Report On Skid Row is “only fair” says Harvey. But at least it’s a cut above most other bureaucratic documents on social problems, since it clearly summarizes most of the major characteristics and problems of skid-row existence, honestly admits some major weakness and failures of the usual, bandaid ‘rehabilitative’ solutions tried by many social agencies (like the detox centres planned by the Addiction Research Foundation), and responsibly outlines some workable, down-to-earth proposals partly based on self-help and democratic principles. Besides, it’s a refreshing short, succinct and readable and costs only $1 – just about what it costs to flop for a night on-the-skids.
Published in Seven News, Volume 8, Number 15, December 17, 1977