Challenging perceptions of homelessness in the suburbs

Many people may think of homelessness as a downtown Toronto problem, but it also exists in suburban pockets of the city, like Scarborough.

I’ll admit it: Until I started working at The Discourse, I hadn’t really thought of homelessness as an issue in Scarborough, though I knew about the debates around housing in the suburb. Many immigrants, people of colour, residents with lower incomes, people living with disabilities and other vulnerable populations have made their way to the far corners of Scarborough, in search of houses, apartments and rooms they can afford. They often face myriad challenges, such as the lack of affordable housing and rising rents.

But it wasn’t until this past October, when I spoke with a coordinator for Knox United Church’s Out of the Cold program, that I truly understood the many shapes that homelessness takes in the suburban sprawl of Scarborough. Out of the Cold is a weekly program managed by the Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services. Faith-based organizations across Toronto that participate in the program — including Knox United Church at Sheppard Avenue East and Midland Avenue — offer a night of refuge to people experiencing homelessness during the winter months. Originally meant to be an emergency measure to prevent homeless deaths, Dixon Hall says Out of the Cold has now become a staple service for homeless Torontonians.

This winter, 15 organizations signed up to take turns providing Friday dinner, Saturday breakfast and — with the help of Dixon Hall staff — access to a place to sleep overnight. Knox United Church’s Out of the Cold coordinator told me that their dinners are scheduled on Fridays, from Nov. 9, 2018 to April 12, 2019. 

The cold snap in Toronto this week reminded me of that conversation I’d had with the Knox United Church coordinator. As I trudged through snow to drop my two kids off at school, my face frozen by the minus-30 degree weather despite being wrapped up in a scarf, I couldn’t help but think of those who didn’t have shelter from the cold.

A 2016 report by Scarborough Housing Stabilization Planning Network outlines several interconnected issues, including lack of affordable housing, unfair rental practices, and overcrowding that results in homelessness and housing insecurity in the suburb. “Changing demographics in the inner-suburbs has meant that larger segments of Scarborough’s residents are experiencing marginal housing or at risk of homelessness than elsewhere in Toronto,” the report says.

In addition, Scarborough’s “vast geography” creates challenges, such as lack of awareness of available services and difficulties in coordinating services. “Among the priority service gaps identified by the community were housing follow-up support, case management services, and mental health and addiction services,” it adds.

Earlier this week, as temperatures plunged and the city reminded residents of the extreme cold-weather alert it had issued, media asked Toronto Mayor John Tory about his plans to help the homeless population. In response, he said he wants to address underlying systemic issues by building more affordable housing and increasing mental health resources, as opposed to declaring a state of emergency in Toronto.

Do you know anyone who’s struggling with homelessness? What do you think should be done to address this issue in the interim, as the city moves forward with plans to tackle housing insecurity? Email me your thoughts.


Paul Ohonsi is a 28-year-old artist and filmmaker based in Scarborough.

Although Paul Ohonsi grew up in the Don Mills Road and Sheppard Avenue East area of Scarborough, he connects most with the stretch of the suburb spanning from Victoria Park and Sheppard to Victoria Park and Lawrence.

“I had friends there. I went to school at Senator O’Connor. So, those were the areas I hung around in,” says the 28-year-old artist and filmmaker. “For me, what’s special about Scarborough is the language, the forms of communication I hear. In my school, there were so many different kinds of people, from many different races that came to school … You’d hear slang like ‘Ya, eh’ or ‘Fam.’ It’s just in the way that people talk. It’s hard to describe.”

Recently, Paul worked on a documentary called Within, which was produced by R.I.S.E, a youth-led arts collective that organizes a weekly open mic night out of Burrows Hall at Markham Road and Sheppard Avenue East, among other initiatives. He also shot our upcoming video featuring Discourse Ambassador Farley Flex and other community members describing how Scarborough has shaped them.

Working on Within reminded Paul of how Scarborough is filled with green spaces that you can escape to. “Being in nature gives me a sense of peace. It’s where I can move. There are no walls — I can fling myself the way I want to. It reminds me of the kid in me,” he says.

Around town

Get involved

A.C.E.Y. (Association of Committed & Engaged Youth) is a youth collective based in the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park area of Scarborough that encourages young people to get involved in advocacy and civic outreach. The group is inviting youth between the ages of 14 to 25 to join. Members develop leadership skills and build connections by meeting local changemakers, while also acquiring meaningful work experience. Current projects include developing and delivering mental-health workshops, as well as conducting facilitated conversations across Scarborough with their peers about youth identities and well-being. To learn more, register for this information session on the evening of Jan. 31 at the East Scarborough Storefront. Apply here to join A.C.E.Y. by Feb. 1.

Real talk

At a recent editorial meeting, my colleagues debated whether we should write “Black” versus “black” when describing the community in our news reports. The Canadian Press Stylebook, which is followed by many journalism organizations in Canada, says the lowercase version should be used when referring to race. It gets even more complicated when we consider whether one should also capitalize the “W” in white.

But a growing number of media outlets, including The Toronto Star and TVO, capitalize the “B.” For its part, the latter says that “recognizing Black, Aboriginal and Indigenous as proper adjectives — and real identities — at least begins to recognize that with each descriptor comes an identifiable community, a particular shared experience and specific history weighted with centuries of injustice. These are histories that exist in Canada, need to be acknowledged and whose effects are still deeply felt.”

Still, there’s no clear consensus among North American publications on what the best approach is. At The Discourse, we’re committed to following journalistic best practices, but we also strive to accurately reflect the community we serve with our reporting. That’s why we posed the question to members of our Scarborough Discourse Facebook group. We received several responses, including this one: 

What do you think? Your feedback will help inform our decision.[end]




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