Review: A Failure

Covid is a tale of failure by federal executives and political aides. They did not mean to cause death and suffering; these people are not monsters. They were merely reckless and incompetent in the manner of Titanic officers who kept a dance band and well-stocked liquor cabinet but no binoculars in the crow’s nest. The Public Health Agency of Canada was fully funded at $675 million a year and found money for climate change conferences but literally could not run a mask warehouse. It was their job to keep you safe. They failed.

Displacement City is a story of failure. The City of Toronto last year budgeted $663 million for homeless and housing programs yet authors count 10,000 homeless people. The City has 75 years of experience in public housing and a six-figure CEO at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, yet was reduced to arguing whether to install communal toilets at tent cities in municipal parks.

“In Toronto people who are poor have been living through crises for years,” write editors Greg Cooke and Cathy Crowe. “Prior to the pandemic over a hundred people were dying preventable deaths each year, many because of the overdose crisis. For years advocates had been demanding the City of Toronto declare a homelessness emergency and asking for additional resources. Now, all of a sudden, there was a health crisis.”

Displacement City is a passionate account of failure. It lists the names of homeless who died including many Jane and John Does. “Shelters were either full or unsafe,” authors quote one homeless person, adding: “Even before the pandemic the shelter system had high rates of violence, bed bugs and theft.”

Toronto’s response to failure, like the Public Health Agency’s, was to spend and spend and spend. No inquiry, no firings, nobody named names. Executives and political aides who could not wisely use $663 million to ensure homeless people did not freeze to death instead concluded the problem was not theirs.

At one point the City began leasing hotel rooms for use by the homeless. “Many of us were excited at the thought of our clients living in these hotels where they would have their own rooms with doors that locked, real beds, hot showers and functioning TVs they could watch freely, the very basics of a safe and dignified space,” writes one contributor. “However this excitement soon turned to frustration. The shelter hotels were run like regular shelters with bed checks and unnecessary rules such as not allowing couples to room together.”

This is what failure looks like. It is expensive and bureaucratic and pleases no one, neither “clients” nor ratepayers who discover they are financing free cable TV.

Identifying who is responsible for failure is hard. These people cover their tracks. Very often it takes Access To Information records and cross-examination under oath to find the truth.

Yet the consequences of recklessness and incompetence are plain as day. The system was fully funded. The municipality had paid experts and powerful friends. Liberals hold 25 of 25 Toronto seats. Six are in cabinet including the minister of housing. Still people died.

This is failure on a Titanic scale. Contributors to Displacement City are understandably angry. Some blame capitalism. One contributor complains the Mayor should have expropriated buildings to find apartments for the homeless. Another writes: “The City might have made life safer for encampment residents by allowing them access to basic amenities in the form of public washrooms, running water, clean electricity and fire safety.”

This is not a failure of humanity. It is a failure of management. It is the tale of Covid. There will be many, many more accounts to come.

By Holly Doan

Displacement City: Fighting for Health and Homes in a Pandemic, edited by Greg Cook and Cathy Crowe; University of Toronto Press: 320 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-46496; $29.95

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