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Backyard Politics

Network, Spring/Summer 2005

The fate of the big willow tree behind the house on Delaware Avenue seemed to be the most pressing issue on people’s minds at a recent community open house in Toronto. Held in the basement of a local public library, the meeting was called to invite public discussion of plans to convert the Delaware rooming house into supportive housing. A new addition would be required to accommodate a total of 10 self-contained units, and people were gathered with interest around the detailed architectural drawings.

Then someone asked to turn the open house into a sit-down meeting, and the discussion quickly deteriorated into a heated debate. Anonymous, fear-mongering flyers had been circulating in the community, and a few neighbours wanted to talk about the new tenants.

‘It’s happened many times before,’ says Peggy Birnberg, executive director of Houselink Community Homes, who organized the open house. ‘I wanted to be cooperative, so I agreed to the sit-down meeting. Of course, having done that, I fell into the trap of being asked questions about who was going to live there, and I found it extremely difficult to not answer those questions. It’s one thing to believe in protecting the privacy of your tenants, but how do you practically tell people, ‘I’m not discussing that,’ without appearing as if you have something to hide?’

‘There’s tremendous stigma around people living with mental illness and with poverty – it’s like a double whammy,’ continues Birnberg. ‘Part of our mandate at Houselink is to educate about mental illness and about housing, but not at a time when people are so invested in their own needs that they aren’t able to hear. If we have minor variances that require us to go to the municipal committee of adjustment for approval, we hold a public meeting to provide information about those issues. That’s the case with the house on Delaware. But it became about the people, and it was very hateful. ‘We believe in integration,’ said the neighbours, ‘but in the final analysis, what assurances can you give us that these people aren’t murderers and pedophiles?’ They became extremely angry, and finally we called a halt to it.’

We all have a right to live in communities of our choice. At the same time, we don’t have the right to pick and choose who our next-door neighbours will be. Human rights legislation says we can’t discriminate against people we don’t like by keeping them out of our community. And yet, providers of supportive housing in Ontario regularly encounter hostile neighbours who go to great lengths to prevent the creation of new homes for people living with mental illness.

‘Every municipality has rules about how developers can build, and if you follow those rules, you get your building,’ explains Brigitte Witkowsi, executive director of Mainstay Housing. Mainstay is the largest supportive housing provider in the province, with 41 properties across Toronto, including 864 units and over 1000 tenants. ‘What we found was that we were being put through extra processes. The community was not given any direction by city officials about what they could and couldn’t talk about. So the conversations were all about the ‘who’ and not the ‘what’ of planning. Planning is about ‘How high your building is going to be, and is that height permitted?’ It’s not about going to a bunch of neighbours and asking, ‘Who can move into your neighbourhood?”

Appalled that such human rights violations were being allowed to interfere with the legal planning process, Witkowski and Birnberg decided it was time to advocate for change. They joined forces with other supportive housing providers to create the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition. Their first project was to publish Yes, in My Back Yard, a 28-page guidebook that contains practical information about the planning process in Ontario. It also offers sage advice about dealing with the top 10 ‘predictable objections’ to supportive housing. The goal is to ensure that planning approvals go smoothly, while protecting the rights of people with mental illness.

The catalyst for HomeComing occurred in 1999, around the time that Houselink received $5 million in funding from the provincial Homelessness Initiative to develop and operate new buildings. ‘We encountered tremendous community opposition,’ recalls Birnberg, ‘particularly at one of our buildings in the east end.’

‘We needed approval on minor variances, and so we had a community meeting. The president of our board at the time was a consumer/survivor of the mental health system, so he was able to stand side-by-side with me and talk about the issues for consumers. We gave assurances about how experienced we were, and some of our members even got up of their own volition to talk about how they live their lives.’

‘It was totally ignored,’ continues Birnberg. ‘Then everyone turned to the local councillor who was there and really dumped on him. We walked away thinking, ‘What else can we do?’ We did everything by the book, trying to work with the community, and in the end we realized we hadn’t changed one mind.’

‘It’s a misunderstanding of what mental illness is,’ says Witkowski. ‘People believe that everyone who has a mental illness is a criminal. But we all know what the research data shows us – that a person with a mental illness is far more likely to be the victim of violent crime, as opposed to being the perpetrator. So that’s what we’ve run into. People demand police checks on our tenants. They demand that we disclose diagnoses. They say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, then you should let the neighbours sit on the interview committee.’ That’s outrageous. These are people’s homes.’

Yes, in My Back Yard is very clear in its advice to supportive housing providers: ‘Never compromise your tenants’ rights.’ There have been too many cases, says Witkowski, where supportive housing groups have felt pressured to set up a working committee with the local community to screen applicants. ‘There’s a real temptation to give in as a goodwill gesture, as if to say, ‘See, you don’t really need to be afraid of our tenants. We’re going to tell you what their diagnosis is.’ Well, that’s nobody’s business.’

The response to Yes, in My Back Yard from supportive housing providers across Ontario has been very enthusiastic, says Birnberg, and HomeComing is now preparing a second edition. ‘It will be bigger and better. The 10 most commonly asked questions will be expanded greatly, based on our experience. There will be even more answers for people.’

HomeComing was recently awarded a three-year Atkinson Foundation grant ‘to continue to move our agenda forward on human rights and planning,’ says Witkowski. ‘One of our goals is to identify a test case to take to the Supreme Court, to make it impossible for municipalities to legitimize requirements that make it difficult to build housing for people with mental illness.’

Witkowski describes HomeComing as ‘a very fluid coalition’ of organizations and individuals who share their expertise as lawyers, planners, and other professionals with an interest in social housing issues. The steering committee includes Lana Frado of Sound Times and Joanne Campbell of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, among others. Two contributing organizations, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation and the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, both bring an interest in test-case litigation.

‘We’re looking for the appropriate test case to challenge some of the regulations in planning, like ‘distancing’ which says that group homes can’t be within a certain number of metres of each other. What is that all about? That’s about people zoning, that’s not about use. Even defining a group home in the way they do in planning language – as an accommodation for people based on their emotional, psychological, or physical disability – why is that necessary? And when a municipality says they will allow just a few of these ‘noxious’ uses in a residential community… Well, wait a minute! The fact that the folks who are living there may have a disability is irrelevant to the quality of life for that neighbourhood. So yes, we’re looking to challenge that.’

‘The battle is around human rights and trying to awaken people who are always thinking about who belongs and who doesn’t,’ says Witkowski. ‘With some supportive housing groups, it does get into a grey area, because they also want to say that this is an important part of the overall city plan to address the needs of low-income people, or people with a disability, or to keep diversity in our community. But the planning process is not the time to educate people about the realities of living with mental illness, or to talk about how effective you are as a supportive housing provider. Because the minute you engage in that, it’s like the door has been opened. It gives everybody consent to talk about all their fears, and it’s not going to go anywhere.’

‘The biggest education comes after we’ve moved in,’ says Birnberg. ‘The neighbours can see that the building is well maintained and the tenants who live there are people like you and I – they’re good people, they’re friendly, and they say hello to you just like everyone else does.’

Houselink owns 22 buildings throughout Toronto and houses over 300 adults with serious mental illness, along with over 60 children. The design for the building on Delaware Avenue includes several two-bedroom family units. ‘It’s a residential area, with a school, a community centre, and parks nearby, and we thought it would be a great setting for families,’ explains Birnberg. ‘We’re one of the few supportive housing providers that have been able to house families. Usually it’s a single mother with children, and we’re very excited because it’s a way to help keep families together. When a parent becomes ill, the child doesn’t necessarily have to go into care, and the family is able to keep their unit.’

‘Every tenant who lives at Houselink has a housing worker for individual support. But we also do a lot of community development with our members, so people begin to reach out and support one another and to share. It’s a wonderful, cooperative model.’

Unfortunately, that cooperative spirit is often less evident in the surrounding community. At the committee of adjustment hearing for the Delaware Avenue project, which followed shortly after the open house, the same objections to supportive housing were raised by unhappy neighbours. The committee chair, however, managed to keep the focus on planning issues, and the Houselink proposal was accepted. The decision has been appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) by someone who was unhappy with the outcome. A hearing date has not been set.

Looking forward, Birnberg is cautiously optimistic. ‘We’ve never lost a project due to community opposition, but other providers have had to pull out because they don’t have the resources or the heat is too great for them. NIMBY hurts on an emotional level, and it hurts on a practical level, because we end up spending more dollars to hire lawyers and planners to prepare our case.’

‘Appealing the ruling, even on zoning grounds, is a way that people deal with their fear,’ adds Witkowski. ‘But we’re talking about providing options for people with mental illness who want to live in the community, who want to have a secure, affordable place of their own so that they can get on with their own lives, and live the kind of life that all of us want.’

Yes, in My Back Yard is available online from the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association at

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