hen John Tory announced Toronto’s upcoming budget for 2023, city residents, workers and officials waited to glimpse what was being pulled from municipal piggy banks — and more importantly, where it was all going.
On January 3, $48.3 million dollars was en route to line the pockets of the Toronto police spending budget. With presumably one pen stroke, Tory had signed away a massive chunk of municipal funding that could have gone to social services, leaving those working within the Toronto community sphere outraged.
The lauded purpose of this sum — according to Tory — is to rapidly hire and train 200 new constables for the Toronto Police Services (TPS) in an effort to focus on escalated violence on Toronto streets.
In the weeks since the budget was approved, community care workers and marginalized groups have expressed anxiety, citing the Toronto Police Service’s turbulent track record of discrimination towards at-risk individuals.
They say a newly flush-with-money police constabulary doesn’t bode well for Torontonians, especially, since this new incentive is built on getting as many new officers out of academy doors and on the streets as fast as possible. Hundreds have taken to the streets in protest, and others have shared deeply personal stories of police misconduct and negligence.
The Hoser spoke with community organizers who have built their lives on protecting vulnerable Torontonians about what might be on the horizon for the city.
Street Health is an expansive system of registered nurses, mental health professionals and harm reductionists who work together to serve Toronto’s at-risk and unhoused community in the east end.
Kelly White, manager of Harm Reduction Programs at Street Health, says that when news of the budget broke last month, her team wasn’t surprised. Their entire network is built on being vigilant on shifts in policy.
“I think everybody working in harm reduction is very cognizant of the work that we do,” White says. “Particularly, [when it comes to] the funding, the work that we do is very contingent on the whims of the government.”
Federal attitudes — as far as public relations is concerned — are pro-harm reduction, White says. However, the real funding and regulatory power come down from provincial government bodies. Recent engagements from the provincial government have left multiple harm reduction sites across Ontario, especially in the GTA, at risk due to a lack of budget and support.
“At this point, a large chunk of our time is spent worrying about funding and fundraising, it’s really because of private donors that we are able to offer overdose prevention services,” says White.
The City of Toronto has their own officially sanctioned and funded harm reduction program, in the form of The Works, a massive-scale supervised consumption site located in the centre of the city. However, what Street Health lacks in municipal funding and oversight, it makes up with in decades of trust-building with clients who the current system has rejected.
“I would say anyone who has experienced homelessness has had some kind of stigmatizing or negative experience with health care,” says White.
White says small-scale decentralized harm reduction has been the most efficient form of care in her years on the job, as safe drug supply and supervised consumption are most effective when there is harmony between the care worker and the patient — a prospect that slips through the cracks at large city-funded sites.
She added that while the city is verbally supportive of Street Health’s work, the municipal government has rarely followed through with concrete funding.
“The municipality definitely has some accountability to accept for the situation we are seeing,” says White.
The inevitably of upcoming police pressure is something Street Health is also bracing for as a result of the renewed municipal budget. She says folks are “regularly harassed and ticketed” by police for sitting in an alley that runs directly behind the organization’s overdose prevention site in Cabbagetown South. According to White, property owners in the area have kept the pressure on TPS to keep those who require Street Health’s services “out of sight and out of mind.”
“A large part of what the police do is simply stop people from being in public spaces, which is just really cruel and unfair,” says White.
White has also been monitoring the logistics of the police budget increase. According to White, roughly 40 per cent of the $48.3 million is being disbursed as raises for existing officers.
“It’s going towards meeting obligations that were already bargained for. Most of us in health and social services have been told that we can not collect and bargain any raise beyond one per cent,” says White.
While the wages of healthcare workers are regulated by the provincial government, White still remains blindsided that anybody can receive such a huge slice of the pie of public service funds from any government body.
“To me, it seems really stark that they can just put out a request, meet for an hour or two and get $48 million bucks.”
In the heart of the city, Unity Kitchen, operates out of the Church of the Holy Trinity downtown, with its genesis being an emergency response centre for food and other supplies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sinclair Bletcher-Lowman is the Logistics and Network Communications Facilitator at Unity kitchen. Working from the ground up, Bletcher-Lowman and the rest of the staff have turned the downtown church into a central community hub providing wraparound support for those in need.
Unity Kitchen is located in the jurisdiction of 52 Division, TPS’s central precinct. The Church of the Holy Trinity is city property.
Staff members brace themselves for police interruption without warning, says Bletcher-Lowman, adding that Unity Kitchen has had numerous instances of unannounced police arrival.
“They don’t tell us when they are patrolling, they don’t give us any heads up if they are coming down, which I think is a part of the core design, the tactic of surveillance. We are subject to their whims at any given moment,” says Bletcher-Lowman. “They can assert their power and enact surveillance on this space where many in the community gather.”
While this keeping of the peace has ensured Unity Kitchen can fight the good fight, it has resulted in a tenuous relationship with law enforcement — a relationship that has not been improved by the new police budget, he adds.
“Specifically, when it comes to police, we have seen an increase in their presence over the last year. This issue with the increase in budget is only going to embolden police to be in situations where they are actively not being helpful and disrupt the community and the work that’s going on,” says Bletcher-Lowman.
Many in the community they serve have had harmful experiences with city police, which renders the safety of the facility at risk, says Bletcher-Lowman.
“People have had traumatic experiences with police, therefore, their initial response is not to feel particularly safe. This, combined with mental health issues, exhaustion and all of the things our community members face, eventually leads to disruption,” says Bletcher-Lowman.
Community members are not the only people impacted by police disruption, as numerous staff members within Unity Kitchen have had similar damaging interactions with law enforcement.
This has resulted in go-to police liaisons being assigned among Unity Kitchen’s staff, who are ready to de-escalate any disruptions caused by the arrival of boots, a holster and a badge.
When instances like this occur, and if there is a prevalent risk of escalation, Unity Kitchen staff are left with their hands tied, as there is no authority which can remove a police presence, save for the police themselves, Bletcher-Lowman says.
“Many times they say ‘we’re just doing our job we’re not instigating anything,’ it’s not about that, it’s not about active instigation. It’s about that, their literal presence when in uniform invokes an implicit activation — we do not need that here,” says Bletcher-Lowman.
Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction
As a byproduct of systemic issues new and old, those within the Toronto indigenous community have created a purpose-built safety net in the form of Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction.
This network of caregivers has endured both personal and generational abuse at the hands of Canadian institutions, and out of necessity, set up this grassroots organization back in 2020 with a focus on helping at-risk individuals within the Indigenous community.
“It’s to support underserved folks in our communities — the majority of whom are substance users — we find that the stigma around substance use is still quite prolific in our community and there are people who fall between the cracks. Our goal is to meet people in those spaces and give them whatever they need,” says Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, the organization’s co-lead.
This network of care involves monitoring at-risk community members and ensuring they have access to basic needs, such as clothing, shelter and harm reduction access.
While operations within the institution have greatly improved community safety, news of an increased police budget hit close to home and heartened the organization to brace themselves for what may be ahead for their community.
“All of our organizers have experienced violence and abuse from the police, all of it traumatizing and very systemic. We have done land and water defence and have experienced criminalization when standing up against infringement of indigenous property,” says Olson-Pitawanakwat. She added that workers have also experienced extended surveillance and have been monitored by law enforcement.
“The indigenous corners are the downtown east, and the proliferation of the downtown east is very representative to me of what the real aim of the police is, which is to protect the interests of the settler state — that $50 million is just another part of that kind of push,” says Olson-Pitawanakwat.
The network of care that Olson-Pitawanakwat represents is embedded in numerous city-wide institutions such as transportation, shelter and medical care.
Beyond basic human needs for community safety, Olson-Pitawanakwat is far more concerned with how a newly minted police force will set back the ongoing work against the opioid crisis.
“We have these supposed good samaritan laws that protect people from being prosecuted or interrogated once they report an overdose. That’s actually not true. The police will 100 per cent prosecute. I think things will be driven underground as a result. All of this is going to continue contributing to the ongoing health crisis we already have going on,” says Olson-Pitawanakwat.
Expanding on the greater Toronto community at large, Olson-Pitawanakwat believes that police overreach will be a slow burn.
“I think the onus will be on increasing community policing. They’ve been sticking with that for so long. It’s so they can appear more benign, safe and friendly. What we really know, however, is that it’s all a pseudonym for expansion.”
Law enforcement officials have little to no issue asserting authority on the home turf of community care organizations, however, there is one area where police operate with near impunity — city encampments.
The logistics of the bylaws surrounding encampments — and more importantly — their relation to city property, is a brew of legislation that differs from city to city. The one common throughline, however, is that municipal powers use this precarious policy to give law enforcement a blanket of cover to enact reckless encampment clearings.
It is only recently, that powers beyond city governments have started to take action against the unethical actions of municipal powers and city police.
As harassment of encampment residents continues to trend upward, organizations such as ESN Parkdale have been operating in lockstep with police patrols in order to offer encampment residents a fighting chance when harassed by officers.
Doug Johnson-Hatlem is part of the ESN Parkdale team, and has been studying the evolution of city encampments in relation to the police since the first whispers of encampment evictions began to take shape.
When the police budget news reached ESN Parkdale, Johnson-Hatlem — like many — was not too shocked, as in his research, the incentive to have more police on the ground is something the city has been marching towards for a while.
“This has been a longtime story. Police aren’t the answer to homelessness, and yet the city keeps acting like that’s the case. Part of the justification of this, for Mayor Tory, has been all of the homeless people in the downtown core, something the Business Improvement Association wants dealt with,” says Johnson-Hatlem.
The Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) has not been shy in sharing their approval of the new police budget, as the TABIA is one of the major powers in the downtown core that holds municipal influence.
“The idea has always been about controlling homeless people, rather than providing what is needed, which has always been housing,” says Johnson-Hatlem.
Since the budget announcement, police movement has already been amplified, as part of countermeasures against the ongoing violence happening across the TTC. These new strategies have seen an uptick of armed police on street cars, in subway stations and in public transit junctions.
While the public response to this has been mixed, in many cases, the weight of responsibility has been pinned on the unhoused.
“People see homeless members of the community sleeping on the TTC, so when these interactions occur it must be because of them. Some of these incidents are from homeless people but many aren’t — they are just assumed to be,” says Johnson-Hatlem.
When asked if this increase in police spending will do anything in the way of change, Johnson-Hatlem wasn’t optimistic.
“It’s always failed.”