• Lily Cheng

Setting the record straight: my position on 175 Cummer Ave.

I am a fierce advocate for the vulnerable. I back up my talk with action. I have dedicated countless years of my life towards:

  • establishing a local food bank,

  • supporting single moms in crisis,

  • helping women leave abusive marriages when shelters are full,

  • championing the sponsorship of a refugee family,

  • spearheading a support network for new arrivals from Ukraine,

  • running programs for children and youth in under-resourced parts of Willowdale and more.

As someone who has spent more time and resources serving vulnerable people in the community than any other candidate who is running in Willowdale, I find myself in a strange position. I’m now being accused of not caring for the vulnerable.

My opponents, even the local newspaper, seek to reduce my views to a simple misinterpreted narrative about a proposal to put 59 units of modular housing on the front yard of 300 low income seniors. Critics say my objection to the location of this project means I don’t care about the homeless.

My critics are misleading the voters of Willowdale: I want to help the homeless; I want to find a sustainable solution that will enable Willowdale to support people who are unhoused while also listening to the concerns of seniors.

Our current municipal leaders arrogantly insist on a development at 175 Cummer Avenue, and falsely claim no other option is feasible. They will not listen to the seniors living at 175 Cummer who deserve to be heard in any decisions that will impact their quality of life. They ignore advocates for the homeless who voice concerns about the poor planning for this site, the large number of units, and the pitiful consultation process that led to this proposal, and shame community leaders who have proposed either potential changes or alternatives. Downtown leaders insisted on moving forward on Cummer Avenue even though they knew the proposal would face legal challenges from the Bayview Cummer Neighbourhood Association that will take at least a year to resolve. Meanwhile, these 59 units sit in storage, empty, when they could already be used to house people currently living in tents in our city parks before winter arrives.

We cannot solve a problem we are not allowed to talk about. Once elected, my approach to Modular Supportive Housing will begin with the recognition that under this proposal there are two vulnerable populations: residents of a seniors home run by the city, many of whom do not speak English, and a group of homeless people. Unlike the current leadership, my “connected community” approach will ensure the needs and concerns of both will be considered when policy decisions are made.

I’ve spoken extensively to residents at 175 Cummer Ave. These seniors are concerned because their building has no doorman, no security that would reassure them they can safely go to the grocery store, or be secure in their apartments. Residents are worried about whether their family will be able to park when they come for visits because an already-full-parking lot on the weekends will shrink to accommodate the modular housing. With limited access to the internet and varying English language skills, residents are concerned if they have concerns or complaints, there will be no one who will listen to them.

I hear the seniors' concerns. I was born in Toronto to immigrants from China and Taiwan. Deeply embedded in my family’s culture is respect and a need to care for our elders. When I was growing up I found it difficult when teachers asked us to call them by their first names. Such practices challenged how I was raised to give honour and respect to those older than me. So, unlike our local officials, I listened to these seniors and I proposed amendments to the modular housing plan.

Early on, Cristina Martins, the previous President of the Bayview Cummer Neighbourhood Association suggested that the modular housing residents be restricted to seniors. This would enable our community to focus assistance and services, from social workers, physicians, mental health care, to a group of people similar to the ones already being served at 175 Cummer. These suggestions were dismissed by people from John Tory’s office as well as current City Councillors. Today, the same officials who dismissed these suggestions are now falsely claiming they always intended these units to house older adults. How is the community able to trust a government that vilifies opponents and changes their narratives at their convenience?

Second, I echo the recommendation of former Toronto Mayor John Sewell, one of the city’s most experienced urban planners and a longtime advocate for the poor, who advises against large, modular housing projects in favor of smaller projects integrated into a supportive community structure (see https://streetsoftoronto.com/toronto-modular-housing/ ). Mayor Sewell thinks clustering 59 people together will simply repeat mistakes made by city leaders since the early 1970’s.

Third, we need to move beyond superficial campaign rhetoric and look at problems caused by similar initiatives elsewhere in the city. I have been communicating with residents living near 11 Macey where modular supportive housing units were opened over a year and a half ago. One resident has been tracking Toronto Police service calls to the site which include assault, break ins, disputes, unknown trouble, person with knife, fire, person with gun and the list goes on. You can find a folder of these TPS calls from the past year here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1-0uctIQp3xePd94zEUIpYT_EYnMbzr7H?usp=sharing

These reports should not be doubted or dismissed. In a study of 1,191 homeless individuals in Toronto, 40% reported drug problems in the last 30 days, and this was associated with significantly poorer mental health status.

Clearly, building more housing is not going to fix the problem of homelessness without a holistic effort to support those with the most complex addiction and mental health issues. In a recent article, the Globe and Mail highlighted challenges in British Columbia, which is years ahead in its implementation of supportive housing of a similar model: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-british-columbia-homelessness-strategy We need to advocate with our provincial government to take further action on mental health and addiction.

Fourth, we need to discuss the merits of alternative locations openly and honestly. We should not assume just because some bureaucrat or a politician downtown decided that the present location is the only possible location - or even the best location! In fact, the seniors living at 175 Cummer Ave. have requested support to get to grocery stores which are not within walking distance. The Shelter, Support & Housing Administration (SSHA) has a list of possible alternative locations, as does MPP Stan Cho’s office. These lists need to be made public, so our community can evaluate the merits of one location versus the others.

Penticton, BC has put together a list of guidelines in selecting shelter locations which includes avoiding areas close to schools and seniors. The City of Toronto needs to establish similar guidelines that are transparent and accessible for the public to evaluate suitability. https://www.penticton.ca/sites/default/files/docs/our-community/social-development/2021-05-19-PDF-Penticton%20Shelter%20and%20Supportive%20Housing%20Location%20Selection%20Guidelines.pdf

When I speak about this issue while knocking on doors, people often tell me they do not trust our government when they say this location has been carefully selected through a rigorous planning process. There is good reason for this skepticism in Willowdale; I have heard many stories of women being assaulted, chased and threatened near an existing homeless shelter at 5800 Yonge Street. The city’s response to these concerns is to pretend like they do not exist, and officials, like the incumbent councilor, have insulted the victims of these attacks and called them liars. Not a single community safety discussion has been held to discuss what can be done.

We have to come together to have tough conversations about the best courses of action. After I am elected, I will form a Willowdale Poverty Alleviation Roundtable, to welcome business owners, faith leaders, and fellow citizens to help us identify creative solutions and implement best practices. In fact, I believe we can innovate solutions that can be multiplied across Toronto. The food bank I spearheaded is one of the best in the city because we provide more fresh food than cans and our clients receive both the dignity of choice and relational support to access other resources and encouragement. This unique model emerged because of the approach of listening taken by our team and the coming together of our neighbourhood with the contribution of resources and skills to make it happen. We are currently exploring establishing a second food bank following the same model.

In addition to establishing a Willowdale Poverty Alleviation Roundtable, here are other parts of my platform that I think will improve the lives of the vulnerable in our community:

  • ADVOCATE FOR ON-SITE RECREATION PROGRAMS IN SUBSIDIZED HOUSING COMMUNITIES for children, youth and seniors. The current Welcome Policy that provides almost $600 per person for Toronto Parks and Recreation Program is rarely accessed by the families I know because of the difficulty of the registration process and competing for so few spots. These communities need our direct investment.

  • CHAMPION ADDITIONAL RESOURCES for women leaving abusive relationships. No woman should be left on hold for over an hour waiting to find a safe place to land after making the courageous decision to leave an abusive situation.

  • PERFORM A REGULAR WALK AUDIT of Yonge Street with the inclusion of seniors and young families to determine gaps in pedestrian safety, and accessibility.

A vote for me is a vote for someone who will work with the community to find sustainable solutions that will support seniors, women, and people living in poverty. I have extensive experience listening and working with vulnerable populations. I will not brush this issue aside but amplify it because I want Willowdale to be a place where everyone has the chance to thrive. We can do incredible things when we come together! We will bring homelessness to the roundtable, hear ideas and feedback from many people, and I am sure that together we can find the best ways to support our homeless neighbours.

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