Huricane Juan
Toronto Star
  • One family?s struggle to find decent housing in Toronto

    The two-bedroom basement apartment was never going to be the right fit for Steve Blake and his three sons.

    Low ceilings meant his eldest son, Jacob, 20, would regularly hit his head and by the time you crammed in a well-used couch, kitchen table, a fish tank, two toads, art supplies, video game consoles, a television and a pile of sneakers and shoes, Kaslo, 15, and Gaebrial, 12, also didn’t have a lot of room to move.

    “We have been a little under-housed for a long time. It is really hard to afford anything more in this city,” says Steve, 50, a contractor. “We never did have room to set up our racetrack” and toy cars, he says.

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    The family also includes a hugely pregnant cat named Moon, though until a few weeks ago she didn’t take up much space.

    It wasn’t ideal, but it was home — at least until last week when they entered the shelter system.

    The Blake family is among the 235,000 people the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness estimates will experience homelessness at some point every year. Lower-income families, or single-parent families, often bounce from space to space. Once inside the shelter system, those families often stay three times longer than single people, according to Raising the Roof, a homelessness advocacy group.

    Steve rented the basement apartment two years ago, but says he only gave notice he was leaving because a friend said the family could move into a condo she owned if he would do renovations for a cut on the rent.

    First, he says, he spent months working on the empty place and was paid for some work, but there were delays and it wasn’t finished. She changed her mind just weeks before they had to move out of the basement, he says.

    The landlord, meanwhile, couldn’t let them stay because he needed the basement apartment for family.

    With nowhere to go they ended up in Toronto’s strained family shelter system and are now in a motel, the city’s solution to the need for extra beds.

    Steve has some savings and more money coming in, including benefits he is owed as a single dad, but in a city with limited rent controls and where the waitlist for affordable housing has topped 180,000, they fear their chances of finding a place that fits the entire family are slim. He also says he has bad credit, because juggling three kids —including one with special needs — and part-time work as a contractor, sometimes meant he fell behind on rent at a previous place.

    Toronto shelters will accept families headed by men, including Birkdale Residence, Red Door Family Shelter, Toronto Community Hostel and Family Residence, according to city staff. By Thursday, family shelters were at capacity and 503 of the 520 spots in motels that are available for families, like the one occupied by Steve and his sons, were taken.

    The entire shelter system, capable of holding about 4,700 people, including the spots in motels, was at 96 per cent capacity.

    The Blakes have been assigned a housing worker to help them search for a place and access any additional supports the city can provide.

    “It doesn’t sound too promising, but we will keep our fingers crossed,” says Steve.

    Before the move, Steve spent two fruitless weeks on Kijiji looking for an apartment.

    “We’re desperate right now. We’d take anything. We can’t find anybody to rent to us without doing a credit check . . . I mean, I’m a contractor, I’m a painter. I don’t have a steady job or employer. What they want is a steady employer, for a year.”

    They had to leave the couch on the curb and they gave away the toads. Moon is being cared for and they hope to bring her to their new home.

    Steve has sole custody and says he’s been caring for his three sons on his own for five years.

    Jacob, the eldest, demonstrates a keen interest in Canadian politics, and is in Toronto Film School, for video game design, where his work includes a game featuring U.S. President Donald Trump.

    Kaslo, the middle child, is in Grade 9, loves classic rock, playing pinball and art. A car accident when he was a baby means he needs speech and physical therapy. He speaks slowly, often in single syllables, but has no trouble getting his point across, particularly when it comes to his musical tastes. A teacher once tried to convince him he could learn to love Justin Bieber. He disagrees, strongly.

    The youngest, Gaebrial, jokes constantly, and insists any photos taken of him show his good side.

    Jacob says being together makes the situation manageable.

    “It keeps me sane, sometimes,” he says. “No, honestly, being with my family pulls me through a lot.”

    Gaebrial, jumps in. “Teasing him really helps us, too.”

    Jacob says there should be better supports and safety nets, for all families.

    “It’s been a lot, I don’t know how to put it into words . . . ,” he starts.

    “I can,” Gaebrial responds. “One word. Hard.”

    For now, Steve isn’t looking for work because he doesn’t want to leave his family alone at the motel. The shower, he says, also isn’t set up so Kaslo can use it safely.

    Finding a place to live, he says, shouldn’t mean settling for something small or unsafe, or going broke.

    “The poor can’t afford to live in this city anymore.”

  • Trump suffers spectacular defeat, millions of Americans get to keep their health care

    Against all odds, Obamacare has survived. And Donald Trump has suffered a spectacular failure that may haunt his presidency and his party for years.

    “Repeal and replace,” the Republican campaign mantra since 2010, turned Friday into a historic fall-on-your-face.

    Facing certain defeat at the hands of disenchanted Republicans, Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan abandoned their widely unpopular plan to replace Barack Obama’s health care law less than two hours before a scheduled afternoon vote.

    Trump responded with typical deflection — blaming the Democratic minority, which was united in opposition, and arguing that Democrats would be held responsible for what he claimed would be the eventual collapse of Obamacare. He suggested he would seek political advantage by allowing the system to “explode,” then return to the table when Democrats came begging.

    “Perhaps the best thing that could happen is exactly what happened today,” he said in the Oval Office.

    But it was hard to square his bravado with the stunning reality of what had just happened. A president with a reputation as a dealmaker, author of The Art of the Deal, going down to defeat on his first significant piece of legislation, a momentous one at that, because of a rebellion from a faction of his own party, on one of the party’s signature issues.

    The consequences may be far-reaching.

    The loss weakens Trump from the outset of his presidency, calling into question his self-vaunted negotiating skills and his sway over Republicans in Congress.

    It emboldens the Democratic opposition in Washington and in the growing “resistance” movement around the country.

    It severely undermines Ryan’s leadership. By Ryan’s own admission, it makes it harder for them to pass their next priority, a major tax reform package. And it means that every Republican will have to explain to voters back home why they could not manage, even with full party control of the presidency and Congress, to fulfil their signature “repeal and replace” pledge.

    More tangibly, and most importantly, it lets millions of people keep their health insurance.

    The bill, called the American Health Care Act, would have resulted in 24 million fewer people having coverage than will be covered under Obamacare, according to estimates from the independent Congressional Budget Office. The poor would have been especially hard hit; the bill amounted to a 25 per cent cut in funding for Medicaid, the government insurance program for low-income people.

    Democrats were jubilant. The result vindicated the wave of grassroots activism that has swept the country since Trump’s inauguration, demonstrating that liberals can achieve results even without control of either body of Congress.

    “We cannot forget: this victory happened because people in every corner of our country committed their time and energy to calling their representatives, showing up at town hall meetings, and making their voices heard,” Hillary Clinton, Trump’s vanquished opponent, said in a statement.

    The withdrawal of the bill came after hours of rare tension on Capitol Hill. The vote seemed up in the air until the very end, a reality-television moment for the showman president who presided over The Apprentice. This time, he was the one being dramatically spurned.

    With the vote looming in less than four hours, Ryan went to the White House to give Trump the bad news — they didn’t have the votes — and ask for direction. Trump decided the cost of proceeding was too high.

    If the outcome was an embarrassment for Trump, it was perhaps even more humiliating for Ryan, a conservative true believer who was the driving force behind the creation of the doomed plan. He acknowledged Friday that his caucus had not yet made the transition from an opposition party to a governing party.

    “I will not sugar-coat this: this is a disappointing day for us,” he said. “Obamacare is the law of the land, and it will remain the law of the land until it’s replaced. We are going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

    Trump’s blame-shifting aside, much of the fallout will undoubtedly land at his feet. The candidate who portrayed himself as an all-powerful talent — “I alone can fix it,” he declared in his convention speech — has turned into a president thwarted almost immediately by some of the same Washington forces that bedevilled Obama.

    The Republicans can theoretically try to pass another health bill at any time. But the possibility is highly remote after such a bruising process, and Trump is eager to move on to tax cuts.

    “It’s enough already,” he told the New York Times of the health negotiations — though they had not even lasted a month.

    Democratic voters had mobilized by the thousands to fight the Republican proposal, flooding their representatives’ offices with phone calls and letters. They were joined by powerful conservative groups, including those led by the billionaire Koch brothers, who opposed the bill for different reasons. In the end, the House coalition that defeated the proposal was a motley crew: the entire Democratic caucus, Republicans concerned that the bill went too far in stripping people of insurance, and, crucially, right-wing Republicans who said it didn’t go far enough.

    Trump’s team swung some skeptical Republicans to their side in the day leading up to the vote. But they failed to persuade others, and the No list kept growing as the zero hour approached. In one early sign that the bill was in trouble, the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Rodney Frelinghuysen, announced he would vote no, issuing a statement decrying the cuts to Medicaid funding.

    Trump and his aides spent much of the week in last-ditch negotiations with members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, the White House eventually agreeing to get rid of a requirement that insurers offer “essential benefits” including coverage of mental health treatment and maternity care.

    But much of the caucus was unwilling to budge, arguing that the bill was still too reminiscent of Obamacare. And, so, the group of legislators that most bitterly rejected Obama’s agenda is significantly responsible for preserving his signature achievement.

    They may have done Trump and their colleagues a favour. Though Trump warned unsubtly of consequences for opposing the bill — “Many of you will lose your seats in 2018 if you don’t get this done,” he was reported to have said in a private meeting — other Republicans warned of blowback for taking away coverage. The bill represented a major breach of Trump’s pledges to provide “insurance for everybody” and to leave Medicaid untouched.

    The popularity of Obamacare has increased since Obama left office — and it is much more popular than the Republican proposal. About half of Americans say they approve of Obamacare; in one March poll, approval for the Republican plan was 17 per cent.

    The repeal vote was originally scheduled for Thursday, the seven-year anniversary of the passage of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, then postponed when its proponents realized they didn’t have sufficient support. Trump insisted on a vote on Friday even with the whip count uncertain, issuing an ultimatum to Congress through his budget chief.

    There appeared to be dissension on the merits of the bill even within Trump’s own senior ranks. Anonymous sources suggested to U.S. news outlets that Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, was privately criticizing the bill as a gift to the insurance industry. An anonymous White House aide told the New York Times that the administration was better off if the bill failed.

    The legislative process was chaotic even as legislative processes usually go. The last-minute negotiations meant that there was no final Budget Office estimate. After years of inaccurately criticizing Democrats for supposedly rushing Obamacare through Congress, Republican leaders gave members less than a day to read their own final product.

    The final sprint to the House floor pitted Obama and Trump against each other once more. Obama broke from his post-office silence to issue an anniversary statement in which he said, “The reality is clear: America is stronger because of the Affordable Care Act.”

  • Rachel Dolezal faces uncertain future after race scandal

    SPOKANE, WASH.—A woman who was once a black civil rights leader in Washington state, then lost her job after her parents exposed her as white, struggles to make a living these days.

    Rachel Dolezal said she has been unable to find steady work in the nearly two years since her background became public in media reports, and she is uncertain about her future.

    “I was presented as a con and a fraud and a liar,” Dolezal told The Associated Press this week. “I think some of the treatment was pretty cruel.”

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    Now 40, she still identifies as black, despite being “Caucasian biologically,” she said. And she still has the darkened complexion and frizzy hair that allowed her for years to pass as a light-skinned black person.

    “People didn’t seem able to consider that maybe both were true,” she said. “OK, I was born to white parents, but maybe I had an authentic black identity.”

    Dolezal had blond hair and freckles while growing up near Troy, Mont., with religious parents. She said she began to change her perspective as a teenager, after her parents adopted four black children. Dolezal decided to become publicly black years later, after a divorce.

    The ruse worked for years until 2015, when her parents, with whom she has long feuded, told local reporters their daughter was born white but was presenting herself as a black activist in the Spokane region, an area with few minorities.

    The story became an international sensation, and Dolezal lost the various jobs by which she pieced together a modest living.

    Attacked by both black people and white people, she was fired as head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and was kicked off a police ombudsman commission. She also lost her job teaching African studies at Eastern Washington University in nearby Cheney.

    Despite failing to find a job, Dolezal said, she must stay in the area because of a custody agreement involving one of her sons.

    She has sold some of her artwork and braids hair to earn money. But she said local colleges have refused to hire her, as have non-profit, government agencies and even grocery stores.

    She was worried she might become homeless in March, but friends bought some of her artwork, which provided enough money to pay the rent for a few months.

    Dolezal has written a book about her ordeal titled In Full Color. It’s scheduled to be published next week.

    Last year, she legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, a West African moniker that means “gift from the gods.” She made the change in part to give herself a better chance of landing work from employers who might not be interested in hiring Rachel Dolezal, a name she still intends to use as her public persona.

    “Maybe if I applied with a new name, people would see me for the qualifications and expertise on my resume, and not toss my application in the trash based on my name,” she said.

    The local chapter of the NAACP declined to comment on Dolezal.

    “We moved on long ago,” the organization said in an email.

    Dolezal is the mother of two sons, ages 15 and 1, and also raised a stepbrother, who is now 21 and a college student.

    One of the reasons she wrote a book was to “settle the score.”

    “People might as well know the whole truth of my life story,’” she said. “My life is not a sound bite.”

    Race, she said, is a “social construct” used to pigeonhole people.

    “I unapologetically stand on the black side,” she said. “Blackness better defines who I am philosophically and socially than whiteness does.”

    It is hard for her to look toward the future, she said, when she is struggling to survive the present.

    “I want to provide for my kids,” she said. “I want to get back to activism. I’m no less committed to that work.”

Arts & Letters
Sunday, 12 August 2007