Poor OCAP. They can’t even complain about the police watching them without the police watching them. At noon on Wednesday, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty held a press conference (not a rally or an action or a march but a press conference) at the northeast corner of Dundas and Sherbourne, and there was about one police officer for each person in attendance (around twenty). As eight or so cops casually observed the conference from across the street, Beric German of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee speculated on how much each one was being paid: “About fifty dollars an hour?”
Such was the theme of the conference: couldn’t the $2 million being spent on CCTV cameras be put to better use, you know, feeding and housing people, rather than simply surveilling their hunger and homelessness? OCAP spokesperson Gaetan Heroux observed that two of the six cameras installed in the area in the past week have been strategically placed in front of Canada’s first- and second-largest men’s hostels, and that all of them are within a neighbourhood that has “one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in Canada.” In the past year, five major hostels have been shut down by the City (partially due to a supposed lack of funds), meaning 300 fewer shelter beds, and “service reductions” have resulted in 341,000 lost meals. And yet “we’re told somehow that these cameras are going to keep us safe.”
Zoe Dod from Street Health spent three months interviewing homeless men and women. “Cameras and police surveillance are not among the solutions to homelessness….Cameras displace people into alleyways and streets that are less well-lit.” And without even any public consultation, “the police can [now] collect whatever information they want without a watchdog” overseeing them.
Mark Bill lives down the road from the intersection and stated perhaps the most important point: “On top of everything else, they don’t work. A study by the British Home Office [PDF] showed them to be a near-complete failure in Britain.”
German held up the TDRC’s Street Health Report 2007 [PDF], stating that 69% of homeless people in their survey had experienced hunger at least one day per week in the previous three months, exclaiming, “This camera doesn’t provide food! $2 million could provide a lot of food and keep two shelters open for the winter!” As the first snow of the year fluttered down around us, this last point took on extra gravity.
The city shut down the 300 beds, the province’s welfare rates haven’t kept pace with twenty years of increases in the cost of living, and the federal government has no housing strategy. “After you’ve given us these things,” said German, “and you want cameras, we’ll talk.”
A reporter observed that, given the number of people living on the street, having the cameras in the area is “similar to having cameras in people’s living rooms.” Unlike people visiting the Entertainment District to club or the Yonge and Dundas area to shop (but very much like the people living in Malvern and Jane-Finch), “people here don’t have a choice,” said Heroux.
Not that anyone really had the option to decline cameras in the first place. The supposed “consultations” that were held essentially consisted of the police stating, “Here’s what we’re going to do. Any questions?” Indeed, one of the police’s own reports on the outcome of the “consultations” referred to the members of the public who came out not as “participants” or even “attendees,” but as “the audience.” And because it’s all a “pilot,” the police take this to mean that most of the Privacy Commissioner’s guidelines [PDF] don’t apply. At this point, there’s no accountability mechanism. They haven’t demonstrated that every other method for reducing crime has been tried or that the loss of privacy is minimal and proportionate. Hell, they haven’t even said how many cameras there are. They just keep putting them up. The original deal, and the premise of the first round of “consultations,” was that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services had granted the Toronto Police Service $2 million for fifteen cameras to be spread across the Entertainment District, the Jane-Finch area, Malvern, and one other section of Scarborough. But since the cameras put up along Yonge Street to watch Caribana still haven’t come down and the six new ones have gone up in the east side of the core, doesn’t that take the count to at least twenty-five? Or have some come down?
Many governments ignore social problems in the hope that they’ll magically go away; passively observing them instead isn’t much of a step up.
Photos of the press conference and the cameras on the northeast and northwest corners of Dundas and Sherbourne by Jonathan Goldsbie. Press conference poster from OCAP’s email press release (but also available on their site as a PDF).