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Challenging Austerity’s Climate of Desperation

For decades, The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has been at the forefront of struggles against austerity.

by John Clark

John Clarke (L) and Gaetan Heroux (R) make a statement to the media about the deaths of two homeless men in less than 24 hours and the mayors  agreement to declare an extreme cold weather alert. Photo by Darryl Richardson
John Clarke (L) and Gaetan Heroux (R) make a statement to the media about the deaths of two homeless men in less than 24 hours and the mayors agreement to declare an extreme cold weather alert. Photo by Darryl Richardson

In April 2015, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble offered a comment on the supposed benefits of austerity: “The most important thing Greece has achieved in the past years was reducing wages. That increased competitiveness. In the last couple of months they have destroyed this development. It’s a tragedy.”


Schaeuble is definitely an expert on the subject of austerity, at least when it comes to imposing it. It’s enormously interesting that the key issue for him is not controlling deficits but driving down wages. The track record of the austerity agenda, especially the intensified form it has taken since 2008, is one of increasing the affluence of the very wealthiest by massively intensifying the rate of exploitation. Austerity-fueled recessions give over to low wage recoveries and all the while, wealth inequality reaches unheard-of levels while the richest grab an unprecedented share of the loot.


At the very heart of the strategy to drive down wages is an all-out attack on social programs, especially systems of income support. This war on the poor has created a climate of desperation. Benefit levels have been reduced massively and rules of eligibility and compliance for those on these programs have been tightened to make them as restrictive and precarious as possible. Moreover, the definition of “unemployed” has shifted so that single parents, the sick, the injured and the disabled are all forced to join the scramble for the lowest paying jobs on offer. The more desperate that scramble becomes, the more the bargaining power of those workers who have jobs is undermined and the more wages can be forced down.


This austerity-driven attack on the unemployed and poor is, of course, international in scope but we’re confronting it locally. Between 2003 and 2011, the portion of Ontario’s workforce working for minimum wage went up from 4.3 per cent to 9 per cent and this wouldn’t have been possible without a systematic attack on income support. Employment Insurance (EI) has been gutted and social assistance has been reduced to levels that keep people in stark poverty.


People who previously might have been considered exempt from job search requirements are today hounded into joining the race for the most exploitative jobs. The injured workers’ benefit system in Ontario has become a means of forcing people back into work they’re too badly hurt to perform or forcing them onto social assistance. The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is so hard to qualify for and rejection so routine that the appeal procedure is a de facto part of the application process. An accelerated system of medical reviews for many of those on ODSP is now being put into effect for the simple purpose of cutting off as many people as possible. The austerity agenda has moved beyond the notion of reduced entitlement and has reached the point of social abandonment.


In Toronto, the austerity agenda merges with one of upscale redevelopment. This city has the world’s twelfth largest population of super rich people worth more than $30 million, and the second largest in North America. Centred in the core areas of the city, there is a frenzied drive to  continue to build luxury housing and create a showpiece of commercial wealth and high-end recreation. At the same time, suburban enclaves of poverty are developing rapidly. They are highly policed, lacking in services and, of course, racialized and immigrant communities are massively overrepresented within them.


Aside from the tens of thousands living on sub-poverty social assistance, 264,000 Toronto households rely on poverty wages, and the percentage of the workforce in that situation has increased by 11 per cent since 2006.


Vast numbers live in substandard but overpriced housing, with 170,000 on a year-long waiting list for affordable housing. One hundred and sixty-four thousand public housing tenants in Toronto live in buildings and units that are literally crumbling. Toronto Community Housing faces a $2.6 billion repair bill and yet the recent federal and provincial budgets provided not one penny to respond to this crisis. It’s estimated that, unless this repair work is undertaken, at least 7,500 more public housing units will be uninhabitable within 10 years and 90 per cent of the stock will be in “critical” condition.


At the extreme edge of this process of abandonment is the crisis of homelessness. Last year, 16,000 people used the city’s shelter system, with well over 4,000 forced into shelters each night. The numbers in the shelters have gone up by 11 per cent in the last four years and the Toronto homeless population is growing at fourteen times the rate of the general population.


For some years now, the city has been challenged on the shameful non-implementation of its policy to keep shelter occupancy at 90 per cent. It’s clear that there is a great reluctance on the part of those running the system to reduce occupancy levels, and it flows from a cold-blooded calculation that tolerable conditions for the homeless might encourage destitute people to see Toronto as a place where they can survive.


As the blueprint for Toronto as a neoliberal city is refined, even minimal provision for homeless people in the central part of the city is being reconsidered. The Hope Shelter near the University of Toronto just closed, removing 124 beds from the system, and no replacement has been found. More downtown shelter closings are coming and the main men’s hostel, Seaton House, is set for demolition in two years with no clear plans to relocate the hundreds of homeless affected by this so-called redevelopment.


This snapshot shows that we are dealing with an agenda that is being redefined and intensified as it is implemented. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has been concerned with finding the means to increase resistance to this war on poor people. We’ve focused on two main areas of the attack, the undermining of Ontario’s social assistance system and the crisis facing Toronto’s homeless.


For the last several years, we’ve worked to build a wide-ranging challenge to the Liberal Government’s drive to reduce the adequacy of Ontario Works (OW, Ontario’s social assistance program) and ODSP. With the support of CUPE Ontario, we’ve built a Raise the Rates alliance of local anti-poverty organizations and unions to press the demand for increased benefit levels while challenging Liberal efforts to cut the system back further. In 2012, the government eliminated the Community Start-Up benefit that enabled people to retain or obtain housing. The fight that was taken up over this lasted some months and culminated in a powerful provincial week of action that led to a last-minute announcement that $42 million in funding would be restored to the replacement program. We didn’t save the Start-Up, and the patchwork of local systems that now exist are less adequate than before, but we did demonstrate that community action is not about registering a futile protest against the inevitable but that it’s possible to fight to win.


Liberal attacks on social assistance continue and this, increasingly, targets the disabled. In the face of wide-ranging community opposition, plans to merge OW and ODSP into one program were abandoned. But the Wynne Government has proceeded with accelerated medical reviews for disabled people which are a recipe for cutting thousands off benefits. Just this week, again under enormous community pressure, the Liberals announced they were slowing the pace of the reviews but the attack continues and major fights lie ahead on this front.


The abandonment of the homeless is, in some ways, the sharpest expression of the austerity agenda. In the last several years, OCAP has stepped up the fight to deal with the appalling levels of overcrowding within the shelter system. In 2012, a series of actions were organized, culminating in two major occupations at City Hall and Metro Hall that led to dozens of arrests. The City Council, however, responded to this by reaffirming the 90 per cent policy and taking some measures which included the opening of Metro Hall as a warming centre. Last year, the particularly dreadful situation in the women’s shelters was challenged and OCAP held a march and occupation of a city office, fittingly on the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Four women members of OCAP were arrested but the pressure on the city was intensified.


In January of this year, four homeless men perished and we responded by taking a mass delegation to the mayor’s office. Temporary measures were taken to somewhat ease overcrowding and funds were allocated to improve conditions. A stalled promise to open 24-hour drop-in spaces for homeless women and trans people was also put into effect. These modest improvements, however, are threatened by a drive to push the homeless out of the downtown. If shelters are moved out to the suburbs, services will not be there for people and the distances they will need to cover will put lives at risk, especially in the winter. In late May, OCAP kicked off a campaign to keep services in the downtown. We targeted the businesses driving gentrification and social cleansing by occupying the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel. Other such actions, on an escalating scale, will be held to press the demand for safe space in the city core for homeless people.


The war on the poor is intensifying but the possibilities for powerful community resistance are also growing. As austerity drives an attack on public services and the workers who deliver them, the prospects for building a working class common front to challenge and defeat that attack can only expand. We very much hope that the model of fight back that OCAP has developed will be one of the building blocks of that emerging movement.


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