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285 and the crazy people

“There are too many social service agencies in the downtown” has been an easy mantra for far too long by those seeking to attach blame for the decline in Hamilton’s city core. As the reasoning goes, the presence of an overwhelming number of helping agencies in the core attracts the ‘wrong kind of people’ to our downtown. The ideas of feeling afraid for personal safety, and even reluctance to share the streets with ‘those people’ is sadly common.

Let me state my biases up front. I live in the downtown core. I work for one of those helping agencies and serve as an active board member for at least one other such agency. I am an activist with and a booster of the downtown Hamilton Farmers’ Market. For me “those people” have names. They have stories. They have lives. They matter to me and they matter to those of us who embrace the downtown Hamilton experience. They are not attracted to the downtown like moths to a light simply by the presence of social services.

The street-involved and poor in our downtown have been derided. They have been characterized as the problem rather than as the symptom or the manifestation of a bigger problem that their presence represents. The victimization extends even into our local chattering and political classes. As recently as this spring our Mayor (and former councillor for the downtown Ward 2) was heard, while speaking in a public forum, to paraphrase the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly after his most recent appearance at Hamilton Place. It would appear that Billy had referenced our street population at the outset of his act, finishing finally by imploring his audience to “do something about the crazy people on your streets,please Hamilton. Really! Do something about them. Get them off the streets.” The Mayor concluded his paraphrasing by repeating Connolly’s assertion, saying that indeed we need to do something to get the crazies off of our Hamilton streets.

During the last municipal campaign, several electioneering politicians, most notably our mayor, argued that we were deluged by social service agencies in the downtown. He made reference in particular to the number 285. The Mayor and others claimed that there are 285 social agencies in our downtown. Living, working and playing in the downtown as I do, I scratched my head in bewilderment. Where exactly were these social agencies? Obviously given my work I knew of quite a few, including the Ontario March of Dimes, St Leonard’s Society, Good Shepherd, Mission Services and Goodwill Amity. But are there actually 285 social service agencies all attracting the wrong people to the downtown? Where could such a precise and well considered number have come from? A number that had so obviously served as a call to action for the Mayor and others deeply concerned about attracting so many of these wrong people to our downtown?

I finally found it online in a document called A Profile of Downtown Municipal Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 prepared in August 2008 by the Social Planning Research Council of Hamilton on behalf of Mission Services.There it was clear as day in Table 9: Community Services by Service Category for Hamilton Municipal Wards. In Ward 2 there were indeed 285 service organizations and support groups. Hang on. What was that? Community services are not necessarily social service agencies? What’s that you say? In many instances, several service programs were found to be all operating out of the same agency or location. Perhaps the agencies were not as numerous as we had assumed?

Just who and what were these services that had so alarmed the mayor? Who were these ‘crazies’ attracted to our once proud downtown? I scanned the list for more answers. Surely the Mayor could not be wrong about this when he had been right about so many other things like the Stadium, LRT and the Waterfront Trust? Was it possible that the Mayor and others had just grabbed that number without actually reading the report? Not in my Hamilton. I read on. The organizational culprits at the heart of our inner city decay soon revealed themselves. There they were.

The Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Canadian Club of Hamilton, and even the veterans of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada were all among the offending services. The list grew. St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Farmers’ Market and Scouts Canada were there, too. What did it all mean? Still it went on to list Whitehern, the Hamilton Literacy Council, the United Way, and Hamilton Place were all included to amount to a total of 285. More incredibly, the list even included seven departments of the City of Hamilton as net contributors to the supposed inflow of undesirables into our downtown. Finally, I noticed what had to be the most offensive community service of all: the Central Memorial Seniors Bridge Club.

What I was also reminded of by the report was that the downtown was home to the highest levels of unemployment, the greatest visible minority population, the most recent immigrants and of the most severe poverty in the city.

Jerry Frug of Harvard once argued that people, “foster an increasing suspicion of people considered ‘other’ and thereby undermine the possibility of solutions to urban problems.”

So here is a novel idea. Instead of blindly blaming the 285 community services operating in our downtown for attracting the ‘wrong kind of people’ to the core, let’s be honest and accurate in our relaying of information. And instead of victimizing the street involved and disadvantaged in our downtown, let’s establish a task force or working group immediately to engage the agencies, business and the City in working together to make the downtown livable for the 99% not just the 1%. Accuracy and integrity will enable us to address our challenges and move forward together.

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