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Toronto Christians protest proposed budget cuts

By Carolyn Purden

Toronto Christians are vigorously protesting proposed budget cuts that they say are targeting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of the city’s residents. Those cuts relate especially to access to food, shelter and transportation.

The Ministerial Association of North-East Toronto, a co-operative fellowship of 34 Christian faith communities in Scarborough and North York, puts it bluntly. In a press release issued on Jan. 11, it says, “As we have read the list of proposed reductions and elimination of services and listened carefully to the explanations offered for them, there appears to us to be evidence of a systemic bias against the economically disadvantaged and the socially isolated.”

The association, which represents more than 10,000 voters, goes on to say that the values of love, compassion and commitment toward the poor and oppressed should characterize civic life. “We feel strongly that the service cuts in the proposed budget run counter to these values.”

The association expresses gratitude that 58 nutrition programs for school children have been restored to the budget, but is concerned that cuts to them were even considered. “We would hope such cuts would never again be put on the table,” the press release says.

One of the association’s members is the Rev. Dr. John Stephenson, incumbent of St. Timothy, Agincourt. He says a particular concern is the immigration of homeless people into Scarborough.

As downtown neighbourhoods become gentrified, he says, Scarborough has witnessed a “dramatic increase” in the number of homeless who are emigrating outwards—to Scarborough, Barrie and even as far as Bowmanville. But there are no facilities for them. The city is selling 700 single-family homes that it owns, and it has failed to provide adequate emergency refuge. Scarborough, with a population of 685,000, has only one shelter.

“Scarborough has not begun to address this issue,” Mr. Stephenson says.

Another concern of the association is the recent increase in TTC fares. “At every meeting of social service providers I attend, the number one issue is subway tokens,” says Mr. Stephenson.

He notes that with only one shelter in Scarborough, subway tokens are essential to get to the next shelter or the next meal. “Subway tokens become street gold,” he says. “They are your ticket to your next food or your next place to get warm and sleep. There is a lack of recognition for the desperately poor and homeless to have tokens, and it’s a critical issue.”

One of the city’s targets for closure is Bellwoods House, the former rectory of St. Matthias, Bellwoods, Toronto. A city agency, it takes in vulnerable women from the shelter system who would respond well to abuse recovery programs.

The city alleges that Bellwoods House is inefficient, but the Rev. Joyce Barnett, assistant curate of St. Matthias, says she believes this is because of its size (14 rooms) and the number of staff. It accommodates 10 women of all ages and, she adds, seems to have had great success in rehabilitating them and helping them get on their feet.

“The city wants to close it and those women are just going to be thrown back into the shelter system and they’re going to be costing the city anyway, with less chance of getting back on their feet and becoming taxpayers again,” says Ms. Barnett.

St. Matthias charges a low rent to Bellwoods House, and pays for all utilities and repairs. “We consider having them there as part of our ministry,” says Ms. Barnett. The shelter enjoys significant support from the community, and neighbours have joined in a letter-writing campaign to the mayor and councillors, asking that the shelter be spared.

Ms. Barnett and two parishioners have also made deputations before the city budget committee, but as The Anglican went to press, Bellwoods House was still on the chopping block.

Archbishop Colin Johnson has written to Toronto councillors, pointing out that many of the proposed measures—such as cuts to TTC routes and closure of child care and transitional housing centres—threaten to make the lives of the disadvantaged even more difficult.

“The budget is a moral document,” he wrote. “It reflects our values, or should do so.”

Anglicans are keenly aware of the needs of low-income people because they work among them every day, he added.

“We realize that the City of Toronto faces challenges in balancing its budget. However, we also believe that the budget must not be balanced at the expense of the poorest among us,” he wrote.

Instead, he said, options for increasing government revenues are available, and the city should pursue them.

Mr. Stephenson says he and his colleagues in the Ministerial Association of North-East Toronto do not at all believe these budget cuts are a one-time thing. Further budget cutbacks are likely to be proposed for the City’s 2013 budget.  Thus, Mr. Stevenson and other clergy  are convinced they are entering into a multi-year commitment to advocacy.

See Archbishop urges action on Toronto budget cuts.