By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
A chemical smell rises from the carpets of the van. The cold wind that pushes around the empty Tim Horton’s cups and plastic wrappers behind 275 Wentworth Street pulls the odour from the vehicle’s open doors.
Laura Green, standing beside her vehicle she’s just treated for bed bugs, the pests having found their way from her apartment on the bottom of a shoe or clinging to an article of clothing, stares at a set of numbers on sheets of paper.
The numbers give a statistical overview of the income, health and early childhood indicators for Oshawa’s Lakeview neighbourhood in the city’s south end, where she lives with her nine-year-old autistic son, Trystan. He stands beside her, his head snug tight in a hood, his eyes glued to the iPad in his hands.
“It’s scary to see these numbers,” she says.
The sheets of paper ruffling in her hands don’t paint a nice picture of her neighbourhood and depict how living there can affect Trystan’s development, health and future prospects.
Green pulls on a cigarette and looks at a second set of numbers. A similar statistical profile, but for one of Oshawa’s other areas: downtown. Her eyes widen.
“But yet they said that downtown was improving?” she queries.
According to the Region of Durham’s Health Neighbourhood mapping, the residential ‘hoods in downtown Oshawa are in worse shape than those in the south end of the city, and it’s not the only area that’s suffering these days.
The impoverished areas of Oshawa are not alone in the region and for health care providers, experts and the people who live there, breaking the cycle that keeps many of these areas from improving will mean putting stigma and statistics aside and working together to help the denizens who live there, like Trystan.
Shunning statistics: Myth; the south end is Oshawa most’s impoverished area.
While over a quarter (26.5 per cent) of people in the Lakeview area of the city are considered low income, that number jumps to 28.1 when you move into the city’s core, and the number of children under age six living in low-income households increases from 38.4 per cent in Lakeview to 42.6 in the downtown.
Also, the median after-tax income is over $10,000 less downtown than it is in Lakeview’s south end, dropping from $44,600 in the south to $32,500 in downtown, the lowest across the city.
In fact, Lakeview’s median income isn’t even the second lowest in Oshawa, with Beatrice North (north of Beatrice between Oshawa Creek and Harmony Road to Taunton Road) sitting at a lowly $43,600.
“Some of those issues that are prevalent in the neighbourhoods are not just specific to the areas of south Oshawa,” says Lee Kierstead, the executive director of the Oshawa Community Health Centre (OCHC).
The OCHC, which started as the South Oshawa Community Development Project in the 1980s, has expanded its purview since then to include all of Oshawa and most recently merged with the Ajax Youth Centre to provide health, early childhood development and other resources to Pickering, Ajax and Whitby, as well.
For Kierstead, the struggling areas of a city tend to see issues snowball, with things like income disparity, health issues and development risks piling on top of each other and perpetuating one another.
In terms of schools throughout the city, a chart ranking the best in the city could have the title struck off and replaced with the title of Oshawa income levels instead. There seems to be a correlation between the two.
At the top of the list of best schools in the city are those in the north end: Father Joseph Venini and Dr. S.J. Phillips topping Fraser Institutes rankings of elementary schools in Oshawa. Moving down the list, the general trend is of the more midtown schools and, finally, several schools in the south end of the city populate the bottom of these rankings in terms of EQAO test results. Monsignor John Pereyma, Oshawa Central and GL Roberts populate the bottom five.
“It’s a perpetuating thing, when you have a lack of education, leading to low income, leading to unemployment — these are all the things that kind of cycle,” Kierstead says.
And how is that cycle broken?
Numbers aside, the most important thing is getting children the resources they need at a young age.
“There’s a true acknowledgement and an understanding that in order to break through cycles like that you really have to get young children an opportunity to flourish and experience and get off to the best start,” he says.
However, according to Dr. Toba Bryant, an associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UOIT, this isn’t always possible with low-income parents.
“They really can’t afford the kind of resources that would help a child and help their development over time,” she says. “So those children reach school and they’re not ready to learn and it’s because their households are so stressed, their parents don’t have time, they’re often doing shift work because those are the only kinds of jobs they can find.”
And though it isn’t always the fault of the parents, it’s where the blame generally falls, Bryant says.
“I think often this tends to degenerate into blaming the parents, but it’s the circumstances that the parents are in and they often have no control over that. So it often creates a very stressed situation,” she says.
And that stressed situation can lead to something worse.
Breaking the stigma
For Green, the stigma of living in the south end of the city is something she lives with everyday.
Not only will landlords not rent to people from her building looking to move, but living on Wentworth, she says she see’s the “worst of the worst,” in terms of living conditions and criminal activity.
Green says she knows the problem only exists in pockets, while the stigma of “dirty south Oshawa” extends its invisible cloud all the way down to Lake Ontario and makes no exceptions.
But she says that the people who live in the south’s better areas also act as catalysts for the stigmatization by shunning the worst areas.
“They can turn a blind eye to us all they want, we’re still here, and just because we’re making noise and getting attention, they don’t like it because ‘oh, our little haven is now being put in a bad light,’ and it’s like, you know what? How about you open your pretty little eyes and look at the whole, not just your little area.”
Perhaps the big developers should be getting that message, too.
One of the big factors that has the potential to improve the struggling areas of Oshawa is development, yet, none of it is happening in the south end.
“It sounds like they’ve red-circled Oshawa south as stay out of there, but that is the very community that could use help,” Bryant says.
And while the north end of Oshawa benefits from wide swaths of open land, the south end must struggle with brownfields and infill, and it is this lack of development that is a really key issue, according to the city’s commissioner of development services, Paul Ralph.
“We don’t have any interest from developers, they haven’t identified any sites,” Ralph says. “There really are limited opportunities for redevelopment.”
The city has successfully redeveloped such locations as the previous industrial site that is now home of Bobby Orr Public School and the previous Conant School site that is now the office of the OCHC.
In recent years however, the growth just hasn’t been there.
According to the city’s development activity report for 2014, nearly all of the new development for single-detached dwellings, townhouses and apartments took place in the north end. And it’s not only residential, but certain essential services, like financial institutions, that are non-existent in the south.
“Those basic services that people need aren’t there because the population isn’t there,” Ralph says.
And the population is only decreasing. Studies show a negative growth of 3.6 per cent between 2006 and 2011, the most recent statistics available.
Thus lies the catch-22. To aid in breaking the stigma of Oshawa’s struggling areas, there needs to be development, but for development to occur, developers need to see a growing population, but if the developers don’t build, where is this hypothetical growing population going to live?
Searching for solutions
In recent weeks, the idea of a South Oshawa Community Development Plan has made the rounds at city hall.
In the regular meeting of council on Nov. 30, Oshawa council voted to send the project to the region to take the lead, after much debate from some councillors.
However, for those on the ground, the debate is only white noise because it doesn’t matter who takes the lead.
“You need all parts of the system to be working collaboratively,” Kierstead says. “It’s not a matter of pushing off from one to the other.”
Ralph denies the feelings of some in the community that the city is passing the buck over to the region.
“When I started looking at it all, the real heart of the issue is a social and economic issue in south Oshawa and it would be best served if the Region, who has social services, health, has regional housing, affordable housing under their purview, they have Durham Region Transit and they have Durham Region Police that can help lead with other stakeholders.”
Similar to the OCHC’s work with Durham’s school boards to ensure children are safe, have a full stomach and receiving the love and affection they need, any type of regional or municipal plan or policy will need to take these facets into consideration, because for Bryant, the problem originates from bad public policy to begin with.
“Poverty is created by bad public policies and this contributes to the inequitable distribution of the social determinants of health,” she says. Those determinants being such things as: income security, food security, job security, housing security, and early childhood development and education. “If we had policies that were supportive of those social determinants, those children would do better.”
And Kierstead says there are people in the community willing to help with that.
“There’s a lot of really strong leaders out there and it really is a matter of how you connect in with them and mobilize that,” he says.
However, Green says the city shouldn’t just look at the south end, but the city as a whole and all its struggling areas.
“We don’t just deserve better living conditions, everyone does,” she says.
Bryant, with the help of a colleague, is also looking into another cause with her Job Related Quality of Life in Oshawa study which will be taking place in the coming months.
“Our goal is to work with the community to try to identify some potential public policies that might address the inequities that have arisen and how we can promote the creation of good jobs,” she says.
With Green, the papers with numbers spread all over them are now gone, and most of the chemical odour has drifted away on the wind.
Trystan is sitting in the open doorway of the van, still playing on his iPad.
“He gets the world and so does she,” Green says, speaking of her playful son and her 17-year-old daughter, who will soon be going off to college.
While she lives on disability, she says she makes sure her son gets the things he needs and then some, taking him to karate and violin lessons.
She also says he acts as a mentor for the other children. Telling them to use their manners, and always say please and thank-you. His politeness even earns him some free treats at the Tim Horton’s near his house.
“What? I’m trying to help,” Trystan says.
And for Green, she knows the area isn’t the best to raise her child, but for her the numbers mean nothing if she pours everything she has into raising a “young gentleman.”
A young gentleman that will need to shun statistics and break the stigma to have a healthy future.
“It gives me a sense of pride to know he will stand up for everyone else,” Green says.