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Getting to “us”

December 18, 2013

I write about housing because it is what I know, and where I think I may have something to contribute.

But for me, good housing policy is only a means to an inclusive and joyful society — a way to break down the barriers between “us” and “them.” 

There are all sorts of ways humankind can be sliced apart: race, language, ethnicity, and so on. But in Toronto, one of the few divides that is truly out in the open – the “ism” that is proud to call attention to itself — is the divide between rich and poor.

I see it whenever the rich and poor are asked to live on the same street. In NDP-voting Riverdale, a retired doctor describes his prospective neighbours in an affordable seniors building “a brood of vipers.” (He actually wanted the City to compensate him for having to live near tenants who could pay only 80% of market.) A real estate agent describes these same seniors as “gang-bangers.” These are not the sentiments whispered in private. This is what people say in writing, or in front of their neighbours at public meetings, or in front of journalists at City committees.

Class conflict works both ways. On my own street, recent homebuyers have paid up to $1 M for houses once occupied by cashiers, clerks or tradesmen, and already my elbows are out. I’m irked at their conviction that paying taxes should guarantee them a litter-free street.  I am offended by their attempts to tell local South Asian merchants how to run their businesses.  If middle-class-me bristles at the attempts to improve a street I love just the way it is, is it any wonder Regent Park or Don Mount Court residents have not received their new neighbours with unalloyed joy.

A toe in the water

Can we break down the “us and them?” There are signs of hope all around us.

One that burst in on me this season was a radio interview with Kathy Salisbury, Chair of the Social Justice team at Fairlawn Avenue United Church. Kathy said she had thought a lot about poverty, but it was her volunteer experience at the 40 Oaks Food Program in Regent Park that brought the stats to life.

By working elbow to elbow in the kitchen, or just having coffee, with local residents, Kathy met people working minimum wage jobs who ran out of grocery money between paycheques. She also saw first-hand how low social assistance rates really are. Said Kathy, “I kind of thought if people were on social assistance, they were being looked after appropriately, but they cannot meet basic needs.”

Kathy said that, “Once you meet people, it’s very hard not stand back and ask, ‘Why do people have to live like this?’” Her encounters pushed her out of her comfort zone to visit elected officials and to exhort more of us to stand up and speak. “Stick your toe in the water,” she said. “One little step leads to another, and your comfort level increases.”

How things really work

My own experience is similar to Kathy’s. For the past few years I have participated in the Wednesday Night Suppers in the basement of Danforth Church. Every week about 60 people from all walks of life cook, serve and eat a meal together.

I wrote about my own hesitant “toe in the water” entry into the Suppers in another faith-based blog. Since then, as Kathy said, one step has led to another. Now the Suppers stand at the centre of my week.

When the Suppers began 20 years ago, it was mostly church members who did the cooking and serving while low-income people did the eating. That’s not true anymore. People who came to eat now take leadership positions in the kitchen, set-up and clean-up crews. And people like me who originally came to serve now come to eat. It’s through my table conversations with people who live in social housing, rooming houses or cheap apartments that I learn how housing policy really works.

Last Wednesday we joined together for a magical Christmas event. A few years ago, when the church upstairs invited Suppers regulars to become involved in this event, I was skeptical. Would people who came for dinner really want to rehearse lines, get up in costumes, and participate in a religious pageant?

Apparently they would. This year, Suppers regulars helped write the script – a funny and moving nativity story where Mary and Joseph end up on the Danforth and are visited by three chefs – formed the entire choir and filled most of the main speaking parts.  But then, the church members who led the music, organized the costumes and narrated the scenes are Suppers regulars too.

Only connect

I have never really understood why these cross-class connections are so deeply important to me. I know I would be the poorer without them. But does it really matter if we sit down together once a week? Are we just playing at togetherness when we go our separate ways at the end of the meal? Is this just a distraction from the big picture?

This week a friend sent me a quote from Thomas Merton – a big picture thinker if ever there was one – that’s given me food for thought. Merton writes:

 “When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. … Gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Friends and colleagues:

If you have a story, about either the joys of these across-the-divide connections or the pain of them – because I think they are not always easy – the comment box awaits.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. gringomatteus permalink
    December 18, 2013 1:12 pm

    It’s always a breath of fresh air reading your posts Joy. Merry Christmas to you and have a great holiday!

  2. December 18, 2013 4:04 pm

    God Bless the poor and homeless at Christmas time; and we are all close to poverty, if we would only get together with the ones from all walks of life and walk in their shoes we would know the true meaning of giving and receiving and having a roof over one’s head , out of the cold…is now a blessing.. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all

  3. December 18, 2013 8:33 pm

    “Gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.” or should it be
    Gradually you struggle less and less for material wealth and more and more for specific people.

  4. Joyce Potter permalink
    December 19, 2013 11:16 pm

    As always, Joy, your column is poignant and inspiring. I remember when Dick Stewart set up a Poverty Task Force at the City of Ottawa that brought together all the key city directors (social services, housing, health, transportation, etc.) with members of the “poverty community”. The first couple of meetings we eyed each other with some suspicion, but before long, we were really connecting and the end product was a series of thoughtful and practical policy recommendations. Many of the messages from those days stay with me and guide my thinking on what it’s really like to be poor, and particularly because of that personal connection with the people giving the message. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Joy, as well as to your readers.

  5. December 23, 2013 1:51 pm

    Thanks for this entry Joy!
    ‘Just us’ lies at the heart of true justice and it’s impossible to get there without realizing we all are – rich and poor together:
    – in the same boat
    – one other’s’ keepers and that until
    – the most hurting become family,
    neither real charity nor justice gets done.
    Like you, I was inspired by Kathy Salisbury remarks. The catalyst between where we are now and our full enlistment in the war against poverty is getting to know someone who is poor well enough that their dinner table becomes ours and our dinner table theirs.

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