The Toronto region’s community services infrastructure is a complex system of facilities, programs and social networks that include neighbourhood libraries, day care centres, schools, social and supportive housing projects, community centres, parks and playgrounds, group homes, emergency shelters and drop-ins.
Growing poverty and demographic changes are driving increased demand for services in the GTA. However, in their attempt to reduce deficits and taxes over the past decade, all levels of government reduced funding for a variety of social programs, and in some cases eliminated them entirely. This has spawned community “hot spots”- neighbourhoods where residents lack even the most basic programs and services.
A number of factors account for the decline in community services infrastructure:
- Income polarization – unlike most large American city regions, the GTA never experienced the deep segregation of rich and poor neighbourhoods. Disturbing signs are emerging that Toronto is now seeing deepening concentrations of poverty: media incomes in Toronto’s 12 poorest neighbourhoods declined by a full 16 percent in the 1990s. In contrast, the 12 wealthiest neighbourhoods saw their median income rise by 10 per cent.
- Community access to public space has declined – increased municipal and school board fees have been undermining community access to a wide range of programs in public facilities since 2000. A recent joint study by the City of Toronto and the United Way of Greater Toronto found that once schools started having to charge user fees for use of school space in 2000, community use of schools dropped by 43 per cent. User fees have been introduced with little or no mitigation for low-income neighbourhoods, where many community programs were offered. As a result, programs have been forced to shut down in these neighbourhoods. A recent positive development is that beginning July 1st, 2004 the Toronto District School Board will be offering the use of five schools in challenged neighbourhoods throughout the city to community groups to deliver programs and activities at no cost. Local committees will be put in place to determine how the schools will be used and how community groups can access them.
- Other levels of government have transferred responsibility for providing or funding services – such as public transit, social housing, ambulance services, childcare and emergency services to municipalities, without commensurate revenues to offset the new costs. Municipalities are forced to pit physical infrastructure needs against social infrastructure needs and the police budgets against community services grants.
The Toronto City Summit Alliance recommends the immediate establishment of a Tri-Partite Agreement among the City of Toronto, Ontario and federal governments to support community services infrastructure, particularly in Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods. Work towards this agreement has begun with the establishment of the Strong Neighbourhoods Task Force funded by the three levels of government and the United Way of Greater Toronto in partnership with the Toronto City Summit Alliance.