A Conversation on Urban Poverty, Compassion & Justice
by Laurena Zondo
mosaic: How has the face of poverty changed in urban Canada, particularly in the context of Toronto, over the past 35 years?
RICK: Overall, I think that things have gotten worse, and what’s happening to the middle class may be the most important thing in terms of our understanding of poverty and where we are going in the future. In Toronto, over 60% of neighbourhoods were middle class in the 1970s; by 2005, it was under 30%.
A study a few years ago (The Three Cities Within Toronto) really paints a picture of Toronto as neither poor nor middle class – that the majority of Torontonians are hanging in that space between poor and middle class. They are the kind of people we talk about as being “one pay cheque away from problems.”
This study, among others, shows that the city is dividing along geographical, economic, cultural and racial lines. I believe that there is fear in both the poor and the middle class. They fear slipping deeper into poverty or slipping into it in the first place. If that’s the bulk of Torontonians, we will have problems going into the future.
This would suggest that partnership, sustainability and community development must be central to the church’s response to these changing realities. And we must expand our theological understanding of unity, hope, stewardship and human dignity, to name but a few.
mosaic: Wow, that’s surprising to learn about the shrinking middle class. What else concerns you?
RICK: One of the big things that concerns me after 35 years is our failure to deal with child poverty. In Toronto, over 26% of children live in poverty – that’s the highest urban child poverty rate in the country. Over 80% of First Nations children in Toronto live in poverty. And if you happen to be from observable visible minorities, your child poverty rate may easily be 50% or higher.
mosaic: People often think that poverty is really just about the lack of money. How would you respond to this?
RICK: The word most used in scripture to describe the poor is defined as “the oppressed, the victimized or violated poor” … there are biblical words for economic oppression, political oppression and violent victimization. This concept of the poor being beat up or held down is the strongest image of the poor in the Bible. One day it hit me. While I was standing on the steps of our community centre, I saw a whole line up of people waiting for groceries at our food bank. As I looked through the line, everybody I knew had been victimized by somebody. I remember thinking how interesting it is that scripture says the number one reason for being poor is that somebody has beaten you up. And there I was, standing on the community centre steps, thousands of years later, saying the same thing.
Some of the other images of poverty in the Bible refer to “the infirm or the sick.” And, certainly, my experience has told me that we work with a lot of unhealthy people … I think of the story of Lazarus, the lame man who lay at the rich man’s gate. Did his lameness make him poor or was he lame because he was poor? It could go either way. My assumption was that he was lame, therefore he was poor – until I came to Toronto and started seeing old guys on the street. All of a sudden, I realized they are poor, therefore they are lame … like the homeless individuals whose legs are so covered with sores and festering wounds that they can hardly walk. These situations lead to mental illness or break down. There are also individuals who are emotionally disabled but have been dumped onto the street without adequate support.
I actually believe that one of the great judgements against Canada will be around how we have treated people with mental and emotional disabilities. We have provided very little care. We were right to empty our psychiatric hospitals. That was a brilliant move. But like most of the things we do, we don’t seem to think three steps ahead. We released people into group homes, except there weren’t enough group homes. And we released people into boarding houses, except they weren’t received by trained staff and they became preyed on. This abandonment itself is a great act of violence.
And so violence – whether it’s physical, sexual or political violence – is a huge factor in poverty. In fact, if you could end domestic violence in Canada, I personally believe you would make a serious impact on poverty within one generation.
Domestic violence is not a question of class. Middle class families frequently implode, often leaving a wake of emotional, spiritual and physical violence. So one question might be, “When is the last time you heard a sermon focused on the violence against women or children? And if we, the church, can’t touch it, who will touch it?”
mosaic: I live downtown and see a lot of people living on the street. I also see parents walking by with their kids, uncomfortable. We are all not sure what to say or do. Sometimes you give money, sometimes not. Sometimes some of your lunch. But, mostly, you feel helpless. What is an appropriate response?
RICK: I think your first response should be a prayer of blessing. Whether you say it out loud, “God bless you,” or whether you quietly say it to yourself, “God, this person is in a horrific situation. Bless their day.” I think your first response should always be prayerful.
I think your second response is to ask, “Why?” We don’t ask this nearly enough.
So, the guy’s on the corner, obviously addicted, and your first reaction is, “If I give money to him, he’s going to waste it on drugs.” The question that should come after that is, “Why?” Why is he crack-addicted? How did this happen? What went wrong in his life? It’s way too simple to say that he just made all the wrong choices. It goes against all the sociology we have and against all the scripture we have. The most likely answer is that something went terribly wrong in his life. It was probably beyond his control. I think asking why gives us more compassion.
I’m generally of the attitude that unless there is a reason why not, give them a quarter, a loonie. Jesus very bluntly said to give to all who ask. Begging goes all the way back to biblical times as a way for the poor to care for themselves. In scripture, it says that when we give to the poor, we lend to God.
mosaic: Let’s talk about the development, gentrification, that we are seeing in the downtown core. All the new condos going up, new restaurants, etc. What is the impact on the poor? Where will they live?
RICK: People working in the historic “inner cities” have known about gentrification and its effects since the 70s. Currently in Toronto, we talk about the suburbanization of the city core as the new middle class emerging as a force. People known as the “urban pioneers” were the middle class who arrived in the 70s and 80s. They were generally comfortable living beside the poor, as was the case with Cabbagetown. They shopped in the same shops in the community and, for the most part, sent their children to the same schools as other social groups.
The new suburban middle class are more fearful of the poor and bring with them their suburban or downtown business core supports – high-end coffee shops, banks, food chains, etc. In Toronto, if you had asked us 20 years ago where will the poor (people who are one pay cheque away from problems) go, we would have said Hamilton, Oshawa, Pickering, Brampton, and such. To a degree, we were right. In fact, we would have bet against the old post-World War II inner suburbs. We would have guessed the housing stock was too valuable. But huge numbers of people settled in such places. Also, a lot of single-family homes became converted into rooming houses (legal and illegal). As legal downtown rooming houses were closed or gentrified, new, often illegal, houses popped up within the old inner suburbs. (See the report Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty for more on the poverty increase in high-rise apartments in the inner city.)
Back in the 60s and 70s, when things got tough in the inner city, denominations divested of city core church holdings. If we divest and run now, where do we go to … to the outer suburbs (like Markham, Richmond Hill or Oakville), which are already experiencing an increase in poverty levels? To quote Ray Bakke, we may be discovering “there is no such place as away.” It is not that poverty is coming to a community near you; it has already arrived on the doorsteps of most of our suburban churches. In Psalm 72, we learn that the blood (the life) of the poor is precious to the King (God). Maybe if the poor were precious to us, we might make more of an effort.
mosaic: When you first started working on poverty, you said it was at the fringe of the church’s interest and activity. What is the fringe now?
RICK: It was Dom Helder Camara (well known for advocating on behalf of the poor) who said, “When I feed the poor, people call me a saint, when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” What he’s saying is true. When you work compassionately with people long enough, the justice issue comes up. Justice looks for root causes. That is the next phase … the new fringe for us in the church.