By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Durham’s regional chair campaign has been one characterized with controversy and political mudslinging.
However, in all debates, there has been one topic that has been raised again and again – homelessness, specifically in the City of Oshawa.
All five candidates were on hand at Westminster United Church in Whitby at a forum hosted by Community Development Council Durham. The event had a specific focus on the issues of homelessness, social housing, and vulnerable populations.
According to data from the CDCD, about 70 per cent of Durham Region’s documented homeless are in Oshawa.
John Mutton says this is not surprising as vulnerable people want to be close to resources, and those are most readily available in Oshawa.
But Mutton claims tent cities have become increasingly prevalent in the city.
He accused the city “of shaking down the homeless” and forcing them to move from location to location.
Just recently, Mutton said the city “went in like storm troopers” and shut down one of the tent cities, alleging people were kicked and had their possessions destroyed.
“That is unacceptable,” he stated.
John Henry said he took offence to Mutton using the term “storm troopers”, especially close to Remembrance Day.
He contends that the city brings resources and supports to the homeless when approaching the tent cities.
Henry has vowed to create a region-wide ‘task force’ that would address “homelessness, mental health, addictions, and domestic violence.”
Fellow candidate Tom Dingwall said it was “very fortuitous” that Henry would reference his planned task force when one has already been developed by the region specifically to address Oshawa’s problem.
Dingwall says tent cities have been around for years, and may only be “visible to certain people during election time.”
He says he doesn’t blame the city or Henry himself for the number of homeless people who have gravitated to Oshawa, but questions the “delay” in acting upon the problem.
To him, the lack of action is either from “apathy or indifference,” and all trust from the homeless community in the city has “been lost.”
Muhammad Sahi argued that the issue of homelessness is clear.
“We all know what the problem is. It’s whether we do something,” he says.
He said there are constantly significant investments in infrastructure such as roads, but “so little on other problems” such as homelessness.
Peter Neal says on any given night there is an average of 50,000 people sleeping on the streets in Canada.
He says he was “embarrassed” that he was not aware of this figure before, declaring it a “wake-up call.”
To him, housing must be addressed as a main priority and considered a “basic human right.”
His father worked beside the Oshawa Creek for more than 50 years, and it is now an area that houses large homeless populations.
“It’s sad what’s going on. I just think Oshawa has a lot of explaining to do to everybody,” he says.
In 2017, a developing firm and non-profit organization partnered together in Toronto to convert an abandoned warehouse into housing for homeless youths.
The five candidates were asked if they would support this type of action in Durham.
Sahi said elected representatives often look at homelessness from a purely “political” mindset, instead of as simply human beings.
He says the Toronto warehouse is just one example of different options, and the region must rely on private partnerships to address housing issues.
For Dingwall, “nothing is off the table” if he is elected.
“Every option needs to be considered,” he said.
In the past 20 years, Dingwall says only about 10 per cent of new development in Durham has been “purpose-built rental housing.”
“We have failed.”
Neal said he loves outside-the-box approaches such as the one brought forward in Toronto, however, he says “solutions are the hard part.”
He wants to push developers to commit to building affordable, mixed-use housing and is adamant the region needs to consider all options, including converting unused public lands such as abandoned golf courses and parking lots into housing accommodations.
Henry said there are already examples of partnerships with the private sector to create affordable housing in Oshawa, such as a new 75-unit building on Ritson Road.
The development was a result of federal and provincial funding and investment from the private company Mahogany Management.
Streamlining by-laws regarding affordable housing across the region’s eight municipalities would improve the situation.
“We need to make it easier,” Henry says.
One of the biggest obstacles to affordable housing is high multi-residential tax rates across the region, according to Mutton.
“We have three of our largest cities with the highest multi-residential tax rates,” he said. “People can’t afford to live in Durham Region anymore.”
To rectify this, the region must be aggressive in searching out grants from senior levels of government, and that a percentage of every new development in the region should be affordable housing.
Neal later took aim at the culture of regional council.
He said there are numerous agencies in Durham Region that help “thousands of people”, especially those who are vulnerable, and also make his life “more comfortable.”
However, he said they are “given a pat on the back” from politicians that are given a “fat salary” and “lifelong pension.”
Neal called for the salaries of councillors to be more in line with those who are on the front lines.