Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa last month. Robertson brought to the national scene the experience of the Vancouver City Council: Mayor’s Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction, a coalition of 140 community leaders to target the homeless with severe mental health and addiction issues. See their report, released October 22nd, and discussed by André Picard in the Globe and Mail.
For all its natural beauty, Vancouver has a continuing problem with the homeless, some of whom are hard-core street people with untreated mental illness and chronic additions. In the wake of an increase in violent attacks, emergency room visits, and Mental Health Act nonconsensual hospitalizations, Vancouver police report that they now spend 25 percent of their time dealing with severely mentally ill street people. Where psychiatric facilities are closed, local community services underfunded or cut back, and a “law and order” justice system no more than a revolving door, more homeless is inevitable. Vancouver is not alone. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 300,000 Canadians live in the 1,096 shelters and on the streets across the country each year. They cost $1.4 billion in additional health care, justice and social services costs, annually. Vancouver has decided to do something about it. And homelessness is the key.
Reading Picard’s account of the Vancouver initiative, I recall similar attention and similar strategies in Toronto not so long ago. Homelessness was a big issue in Toronto. Apart from the Toronto Community Foundation Vital Signs Report, I haven’t heard much about it in recent years. Does that mean the problem has been solved? Or only that it has been drowned out by other issues and by other styles of municipal governance?
How Robertson went about dealing with the homelessness issue is what I want to focus on. He identified a big problem, gathered together all the affected agencies and institutions, researched the current situation, learned from the experts, and developed a comprehensive strategy to address it. He recognized the extent to which it is a national problem and is now seeking a national strategy, and federal funds, to deal with what has now seen as a “public-health crisis.” His is a model for the development of intelligent and effective public policy.
Compare the current Toronto scene where transit has been identified as the key public policy issue of the day. Globe and Mail municipal reporter, Marcus Gee, has produced a video on the history of how transit policy has been made (or not) in Toronto in recent years. It is hilarious and, alas, totally true. Maybe as a public service, the Globe and Mail should post the video on YouTube. It would go viral. You can click on the hyperlink and see if you agree.
October 27, 2014. One year from today will be the next Toronto election for mayor and councillors. Those elected will run the city until 2018. Mayor Ford has put Toronto on the map, but not necessarily as many of us may have wished. The existing show has been just that: one debacle after another. High profile pronouncements reversed, and reversed again. Important public policies bandied about by politicians of all stripes purely for political advantage, without regard to expert professional advice. A promise to weed out an alleged “gravy train” degenerating into a tawdry record of ignoring the rules, coaching football on city time, shutting out the media, etc., etc., etc.
Soon the ball will be in our court to decide the future of this city.
Earlier this month, Rahul Bhardwaj, President and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation, spoke to the Canadian Club about the TCF’s 12th Annual Vital Signs Report on the state of the city. The local press provided comprehensive coverage of their findings. The basic conclusion is that all that has made Toronto 4th out of 140 cities around the world on the Economist liveability scale is not sustainable in the current climate.
What the press did not cover was Mr. Bhardwaj’s assessment of the local political scene. He did not mince words. He made a call for “network thinking” and for a City Hall that is not a “debating society for the deaf.” He referred to Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s vision of Calgary, and how even the Calgary Sun praised their mayor because “he gave us hope, made us proud.” Similarly the unlikely example of Bogota, Colombia, where the city is thriving. Why? Because both cities “have strong political leadership and a singular vision. Toronto has neither.”
Mr. Bhardwaj indicated that leaders who have vision achieve smart growth, do more with less, and achieve support for change. He said that there are five things Toronto needs:
- connectivity, including transit that actually meets people’s needs
- an affordable housing strategy
- more public spaces that are “people-centred”
- an integrated approach to youth unemployment (check out the German model), and
- the need to “rebuild the Toronto brand” so that “the world knows what Toronto stands for”
He asks who will kickstart this? What he termed the “cringeworthy leadership in the city” shows a “complete unwillingness to take a risk. Real leadership depends on taking real risks” and a capacity “to heal the trust deficit.” He noted that the 2014 municipal election is October 27, 2014 and we “can’t indulge in magical thinking twice.” Nor can we wait for “somebody else.” “It is time for all of us to act as “somebodies” and “get engaged again.” He called for “network thinking, big time,” suggesting that each of us “create, nurture, and deliver our own networks” for the good of the city.
Maybe Rahul Bhardwaj should be our next mayor. If not him, who has the vision, the skills, and the credibility to move Toronto forward? That is the key issue.