My name is Laura Heidenheim. I am a third year student studying Media Production at Ryerson University. Upon my return from a volunteer trip in Honduras last February, I found myself asking- what exactly can I do in terms of poverty alleviation in Toronto? I was skeptical as to what I could actually achieve here but decided to start working to try and highlight those affected my poverty in Toronto and York Region.
Throughout this process I began to question what actually was helpful and what makes a difference in regards to poverty alleviation. Speaking with long-time activist, street nurse and Ryerson professor Cathy Crowe- I began to realize that simply giving a sandwich or spare change to someone on the street was not necessarily the most effective way of “doing good”. Though it does help the immediate issue, it doesn’t help what Crowe refers to as the “upstream issues”, such as the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada has just recently thrown out legislation that would hold the government accountable for the Housing Crisis in Canada, or the fact that extreme gentrification is causing what Professor David Hulchanski calls “three cities”, where the lowest income people are being pushed out of the city. Michael Shapcott recently wrote an article for the Wellesley Institute discussing Hulchanski’s findings, highlighting that in Toronto “by 2025, the middle income will shrink to 9% of the city, while the poorest neighbourhoods will grow to 60% of the city” (Shapcott, Wellesley Institute).
While these large systemic issues seem impossible to combat, Shapcott voiced in a recent interview I had with him that simply writing to you local MP can actually achieve great things. Shapcott also spoke to the importance of immediate relief, saying that though you shouldn’t stop at simply giving food or change- it is still needed:
If someone is hungry giving someone a sandwich is a good thing. I don’t think you should say to people we are working on social justice and it’s going to take 5 years so in the mean time you have to starve(…)But what we can’t do is assume that when we give a homeless person a sandwich it will solve the underlying issues.
I think one of the most important things when you’re walking down the street is to understand that the person you are looking at who you may think is homeless is a human being… and not to feel guilty if you don’t have a sandwich or if you don’t have a loonie. There are days when I’m tapped out there are days when I’m too busy there are days when I just don’t want to give and that’s okay. But it’s important to recognize the humanity in people.
Raise your voice, in our political system values do matter and protecting those values is important. So give a sandwich to a homeless person and then go home and write an email to your city councillor and when you get the token response back write another email and say you are really serious about this.
I have seen the fantastic achievements of both the “downstream” and “upstream” efforts against poverty. Speaking with Julien Lachance, one of the highlighted support workers from Na-Me-Res, I saw the power of his dedication and tireless work to find people housing and get them off of the streets. I also have witnessed the strength of ACTO (Agency Centre for Tenants Rights Ontario) while filming at their recent Right to Housing Day Event, where new legislation was proposed and local MPs spoke of reform. However, as I search for this question of what exactly is actually making a difference it has become apparent to me that not only is it both the systemic efforts as well as the immediate efforts, but for each person it is different. Activism is personal and whether you are giving food or participating in a demonstration at city hall, as long as you are educated and remember the importance of BOTH aspects you are doing good. Simply being aware of the reality and choosing to become a part of the conversation is important and if you can’t participate on a large scale find your own small way to combat poverty. Whether it is simply signing a petition, following up on promises the government has made or even educating yourself- find how poverty alleviation can be a part of your life and make it work. We are responsible for the end of poverty and homelessness in our community, so let’s make it happen.