“Municipal politics has never been my thing”

By: Emily Harris

Municipal politics has never been “my thing”.

I’ve always been more interested in the causes and consequences of national and global political and socio-economic trends, especially as they affect women. I really didn’t think that I could be bothered to consider upcoming municipal budget approvals, or any such minor developments in how my city is managed. They didn’t seem important or relevant to my experience [insert condescending joke about Millennials and global citizenship here]. The good news is that I’ve begun to see the light, and WiTOpoli is guiding my way.

Over a few months, I learned more about the group and saw the opportunity to join them at an event co-hosted by Be the Vote. I told a few friends at work about it, one of whom hadn’t voted in a Canadian election in a number of years, and we all attended together. It was a great introduction to what WiTOpoli is all about, and included a challenge to get someone new to vote (which I promptly decided should be that same friend – and it worked!).

My biggest inspirational WiTOpoli moment, however, happened just a few weeks ago. I noticed that they were hosting a Municipal Budget night at the Centre for Social Innovation.  I took a look at the information that was going to be presented, and realized that I had zero clue about how these budgetary processes work. I had to go!

Claire McWatt was the host of the event which also featured Executive Director of Sistering Pat O’Connell. The entire evening was such a great example of how the folks at WiTOpoli really get it – from including childcare options at the venue of their events to using inclusive and respectful language throughout their communications. It was also a very informative evening for me, as I can know understand and explain the differences between capital and operating budgets, how to reconcile municipal politicians’ statements with the action they are able to take, and how seemingly small, bureaucratic decisions can have a huge impact on women in vulnerable circumstances in our city. It was also interesting to hear the questions from the other women and men who attended (albeit sometimes I was frustrated to hear how many women began their comments by apologizing or saying “This might be a stupid question, but…” – but group power structures and the socialization of women is the topic for another post!).

In short, the evening was inspiring and a little humbling, too. I realized that I needed to learn more about municipal systems, power balances between and amongst citizens, and the influence of local people on the building of their own community.

Soon after the event, I saw a tweet that encouraged attendees to send an email to their city councillor. WiTOPoli provided a template to send which stressed the importance of providing adequate budget for the development of low-barrier shelters for women. Gotta love the ease of this tool! I saw it as an opportunity to go from education to action, and used the template (along with the website provided to identify who my councillor actually was!) to send the email.

I really didn’t think much would come of it after that. In the past, I had fired off many different form emails to federal politicians and signed tons of petitions without getting anything in return. So wasn’t I surprised when I saw a reply a few hours later from my councillor’s office! Not only had my councillor read the email, he wanted to have a phone call with me to discuss the issues I referenced.  I soon sent an email back to confirm that I would have a chat with him, but I had no idea what to expect! Luckily, Steph was kind enough to send me some pointers about how to go forward (thanks again, Steph!).

At this point, it’s really important for me to also reflect on the fact that I’ve been privileged enough to partake in these experiences. Important factors like having the money to travel by TTC to events, speaking the same language as my councillor, and having the luxury of time in the middle of the day to take a phone call all contributed to this experience for me. I am very aware that is not a feasible way for everyone to engage in our political system, and there are strong, structural barriers that exclude many voices and opinions from participating full in the civic process. This is not acceptable and must be changed.

All in all, the call with my councillor went very well.  I referenced some of striking facts and figures that I had highlighted from various websites, and periodically noted many of the most important statistics. It felt like an honest conversation, as opposed to a staged or scripted affair, where I was able to openly talk about my neighbourhood and the issues I see in my city (I think the operative word here is ownership). My councillor acknowledged the fact that we have problems, and put forward a few budget-related suggestions about how to improve. There was also space to continue the conversation, and my councillor urged me to get in touch with him again to share my thoughts in the future.

Thank you to WiTOpoli for helping me to expand my horizons. You are truly an inspirational group that is doing such good work for the women in our city. I’ll see you again soon.

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#TOBudget2016: Make Emergency Shelter Funding a Priority

By: Lauren Atmore

With the city’s 2016 budget deadline looming, the familiar fear of which services are going to be cut is creeping in. One area that is chronically underfunded are Toronto’s emergency shelters and drop-in centres, and unfortunately 2016 doesn’t look any more promising.

Although the City of Toronto website tells us there are 47 emergency shelters and hostels for our city’s most vulnerable, they are frequently over-populated and often have trouble meeting demand, especially in the winter and in poor weather conditions. When it comes to low-barrier options, there are even fewer options.

Many emergency shelters do not provide to low-barrier access for those who need them. With low-barrier access services, “the aim is to have as few barriers as possible to allow more people access to services. In housing this often means that tenants are not expected to abstain from using alcohol or other drugs, or from carrying on with street activities while living on-site, so long as they do not engage in these activities in common areas of the house and are respectful of other tenants and staff.” Essentially, these types of drop-in centres allow people to access services quicker, with fewer stipulations in place.

According to the Wellesley Institute, low-barrier access is important because “people should be able to get the help they need with low psychological barriers and procedural hurdles.”

Sistering is one of Toronto’s only low-barrier 24/7 drop-in centres. Executive Director Pat O’Connell says the lack of municipal funding for these services is at a crisis level. As she outlined at WiTOpoli’s 2016 Budget Explainer, the city and other channels of funding are only able to go so far, offering just band-aid solutions to a systemic issue. While healthcare is funded in part by the federal government and managed by the province, Pat explains how emergency facilities like Sistering are expected to pick up the slack. She often sees women dropped off at the centre by hospital or police services, only to have Sistering not have the necessary resources to handle someone in such dire need, and the clients being turned back to the very same services that brought them.

The silver lining is that organizations like Sistering focus on harm reduction which is an effective strategy in helping women avoid emergency services like hospitals, and saves nearly $1000 from our healthcare system with each trip avoided. They give women access to basic necessities like regular meals, hot showers and safe places to sleep which are the building blocks for women to get back on their feet.

But with the threat of reduced funding year over year, those working closest with the people who use shelter and drop-in services worry about making ends meet – or worse, having to turn people away. Advocates like Pat urge Torontonians to use their voices and harness political to make change. Many of the people in the emergency shelter system aren’t able to campaign for their needs as they struggle to make sure their basic needs are covered. While the goal is to ultimately build up our support systems to help people avoid poverty and the need to use emergency services, what Pat says we need right now is more places for women to go.

By writing, calling, tweeting and contacting our councillors and representatives at higher levels of government, we can let them know that the safety of those in need is a paramount concern that requires action now. Here’s a draft letter you can use when writing or e-mailing your councillor on this issue. Be sure to contact them ASAP – the budget will be presented in council this week on February 17th and 18th.