Archive for November, 2008

November 24, 2008

"Broken Window theory" boosted in Science magazine findings

Disorder brings disorder, says the “Broken Windows” theory. Developed in the 1970’s by James Wilson and George Kelling, the theory maintains that once visible forms of social disorder have invaded a community, more disorder is sure to follow. And with more disorder, communities fall into disrepair, disinvesment, and decline.

An example of the theory, you may remember, is the anti-litter ad campaign the TTC ran a few years ago, urging people not to be the first to throw their trash on the ground as surely then “everyone” would follow. That campaign was premised on the idea of the “Broken Windows theory.” .

The theory had many weaknesses on broad social and political levels. Broken Windows doesn’t account for the larger social structures which create disorder, poverty and inequity. Nor does it account, as Sampson, Raudenbush & Earls do with their idea of collective efficacy, for the micro-level neighbourhood interactions which can mitigate against community disorder.

However, the Broken Windows theory gained political force because it offers a simplicity of solution. It also offers a cachet which appeals to middle-class electorate’s sensibilities. Promulgated by many big-city American mayors through the 1980s and 90s, Malcolm Gladwell re-popularized the theory in his book, The Tipping Point. It became a topic of debate between Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics. See Gladwell’s blog for a sample.

So, into this environment, a recent study in Science shows that the theory does have some demonstrated effect. One of the best summaries of the article (pictures included) is posted as follows:

Not Exactly Rocket Science : The spread of disorder – can graffiti promote littering and theft?

Posted using ShareThis

It seems, after all, there is something to the old chestnut, “Monkey see, Monkey do, Monkey get in trouble, too.”

November 15, 2008

Roots of Violence report

Reports come and reports go. (Recently, some housing activists, bemoaning this truism, thought an effective protest might be to build a home out of all the housing reports which have been released on the topic.)

Into this environment, the long-awaited Roots of Violence report was released at Queen’s Park Friday (the last day of a week being a (non-)noteworthy day itself in the news cycle). And, this new report cited the decades-long list of reports which have covered the topics of youth violence, racism and poverty. The Literature Review for the report is 570 pages alone. A separate volume of commissioned research papers is almost as long, and an additional volume on “community perspectives” was included in the release.

One goes into these things, hoping again this isn’t the perennial re-arranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic. What we are looking for are lifeboats.

The Roots of Violence report sets out thirty recommendations, three for “priority implementation.”

The first, to provide universal mental health for youth, costed at $200 million. The report authors write that they believe this cost estimate is “manageable” within the current government’s term of office.

Second, the report recommends some anti-racism initiatives – calling for the establishment of a Cabinet Committee and Premier’s Advisory Committee on Social Inclusion and Anti-Racism; the training of front-line police officers; and teacher and school principals to “better reflect the neighbourhoods they serve”. (Nothing new here, and no specifics to get us there.)

The third priority recommendation is a call for “steps [emphasis added] towards community hubs….Another winter and spring should not go by in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods with there being no safe place for youth to gather and play.” No costing is attached to the recommendation, so it’s also not likely to get far.

In their comments at the press conference, the authors largely focused the psychological and social effects of the criminalization of youth. McMurtry expounded how, with his fifty years in the justice system, both he and Police Chief Bill Blair knew that jailing kids was “a simplistic solution.” True enough, but aside from offering there are no “quick solutions,” little to move the agenda forward.

The report does suggest two other interesting bits:

  • A Youth Policy framework, a re-work of a low-key report released earlier this year at United Way Toronto. Another call to break down silos and improve service coordination. Perhaps it will work this time.
  • The development of an Index of Relative Deprivation to help target interventions at the neighbourhood level (Census Dissemination Area). Using census data, the Index gives an early hint at what the province might use in its soon to be announced Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Still, considering the vagueness of the report’s recommendations, I’m keeping my life jacket on. The ship is still sinking.

November 13, 2008

Researcher Needed for Bed Bug Project

(This is too fun not to post. Who wouldn’t want to do research with a real impact?)
[If you landed here, looking for info on bed bugs, look at WoodGreen’s helpful manual on the subject.]

Project Overview:
WoodGreen, in partnership with Habitat Services, seeks a researcher to work with us to document and assess the efficacy of our Bedbug Inspection, Response and Tenant Education Project, and to help us answer some remaining questions in this field. The Project aims to prevent and reduce the spread of bedbugs in 45 boarding and rooming houses in Toronto. There has been very little research conducted to document the impact of bedbugs on low-income, vulnerable groups in Toronto, North America, or even elsewhere. We are looking for a creative and innovative researcher who wants to make a significant contribution towards community research on this issue.
Key responsibilities include:
• finalize research plan and budget with Project partners
• work with the Project staff to summarize and describe the project implementation process, and to highlight its strengths and challenges
• develop an interview tool, then train and work with peer evaluators to document 10 stories of tenants who have been effected by bedbugs
• work with Project staff to answer remaining questions about best practices for bedbug response, including one or more of the following (to be finalized by Project staff and researcher):
o How are/will be organizations outside of the social services and housing sectors affected by bedbugs?
o What is the true, total cost of eliminating bedbugs from a housing setting?
o To what extent are bedbug problems correlated with poverty?
o What is the tenant experience of having bedbugs, including emotional and psychological impacts?
o What are the financial and other benefits of public response to bedbug problems in advance of a more widespread epidemic?
o What is the environmental impact of dealing with bedbugs, in terms of energy used, waste created and pesticides released?
• interview at least 8 key informants representing a variety of Project stakeholders
• develop and implement a way to measure the amount of accurate information about bedbugs that tenants as well as landlords learned from being involved in the Project
• meet with partners to review data collected from the Project to identify and document project trends and learnings
• assist Project staff to create educational materials suitable for tenants in Habitat Services’ client profile
• work with the Project partners to write a final report, intended as a resource to the boarding and rooming house sector, private and non-profit landlords, tenants, and support services providers
• carry out the research in a non-judgemental, respective, and non-intrusive way which respects the privacy of those involved, and upholds the mission and mandates of WoodGreen and Habitat Services

• a graduate degree and experience working with community groups and agencies to develop and implement research projects
• knowledge of the issues facing low income, vulnerable tenants, with mental health issues, and histories of street-involvement, homelessness, and/or substance use

Our initial deadline for applications is Sunday, November 30th, 2008. We anticipate budgets between $20,000 and $30,000.

The deadline for completing all work and reporting is March 31, 2009. Work is expected to begin in December 2008.
Please apply by sending a resume, cover letter, and draft research work plan including expected compensation to:
Elaine Magil, Manager of Tenant Outreach and Education
WoodGreen Community Services
835 Queen St. E., Toronto, ON M4M 1H9
emagil at

About WoodGreen:
WoodGreen Community Services takes an integrated approach to building a better Toronto. We offer innovative, long-term solutions to the most critical social issues facing our city today. WoodGreen provides the essentials of life to 37,000 individuals and families from across the GTA annually. With
20 locations across east Toronto, we deliver services that promote wellness and self-sufficiency, reduce poverty and inequality, and build sustainable communities. This Project is one of a number of innovative responses WoodGreen has implemented to tackle the issue of bed bugs in Toronto.

About Habitat Services:
Habitat Services provides boarding home accommodation for 860 people in 46 locations across the City of Toronto. Habitat was developed in response to identified problems with the physical conditions and personal care  standards provided in private sector boarding and lodging homes, where many people with a history of serious mental illness were housed. In 1987, the Ministries of Health and Long Term Care, Housing, Community and Social Services, and the City of Toronto were involved in the establishment of Habitat Services. The mandate of Habitat Services, in conjunction with the funding partners, was to improve the quality of housing for people with a history of serious mental illness by monitoring standards of care in private sector, for-profit boarding homes, and to make the housing environment as supportive as possible. Central to Habitat’s success as an organization trying to improve standards in for profit boarding homes is the use of a commercial contract. The contract and enhanced per diem is used by Habitat to enforce minimum standards and to offer an incentive to
boarding home owner/operators to provide housing to people with serious mental illness. In 2007/2008, Habitat received 748 referrals from over 83 designated referral sources in the city. 41% of our referrals have legal involvement, 26% of referrals came from hospitals and 13 % of current
tenants were referred to Habitat by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Habitat also provides site support services for tenants as part of its program. Services include accompanying tenants to health and social services, housing appointments and advocacy. In March of 2006 we received notice from the City of Toronto, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration division that the Province had allowed the City to flow surplus per diem funding to Habitat to address health and safety concerns in the portfolio. Building audits were completed for each house and expert recommendations made to improve cooling. The project allowed us to implement custom cooling solutions in 39 homes, and to require a cooling room at every site. Now, in 2008-2009, we have again used surplus per diem funding to address the spreading of bed bugs in boarding home accommodation and provide information and financial assistance to the owners dealing with this issue.

November 9, 2008

Class Warfare, they say….

broke out in Leslieville last week. Some of you may have seen the news reports.

Signs, looking much like the “No Big Box” posters which sprouted in front windows around the neighbourhood all summer long, were plastered to telephone poles and mail boxes, saying “No Yuppies in Leslieville.”  Official reaction was swift. The signs were scraped off wherever they were found because, although they reflected tension in the neighbourhood, they also, unfortunately, crossed the line of free speech with an incitement to violence, in the small print, invited readers to smash windows.

Almost all who saw the posters had a strong reaction to them – either positive or, in politer company, more negative. It was after all all evocative act, one which had also sprung up in graffitti on condo bill boards or in murmurs on street corners.

The neighbourhood is in flux. According to the the South Riverdale demographic profile on the City of Toronto website, from 1996 to 2001, median household incomes grew by nearly $11,000 and the number of people who fall below the low income cut-off fell by 29%. See The 2006 numbers are still being crunched but will no doubt show the trend continues.

It is, as the local city councillor Paula Fletcher, says, a mixed neighbourhood. But it is, more accurately a neighbourhood, in transition. And that is a time when tensions, rightly or wrongly will surface.

The Toronto Sun, former bastion of the working class, rose quickly to the defense of “Yuppies” and those who like “venti pumpkin-spiced lattes.” Ignored were the complaints of rising rents and new, too-expensive stores.

The Toronto Star obfuscated, explaining that because the process wasn’t complete, because the neighbourhood still had rough edges, this wasn’t gentrification – and so, presumably, no one should be up in arms about the neighbourhood newcomers who were driving up housing prices (and therefore realty taxes). People are arriving, we are told, because they like the grittiness of the neighbourhood; no worries about what happened similarly on Queen St. West.

Even Garth Turner, (yes former Conservative M.P.), describes a process of gentrification in Leslieville (or South Riverdale if you have lived there longer) where “Greedy developers are trying to turn it into a yuppie park, which will displace those who have lived there affordably.” Turner says that the neighbourhood will never switch to upper class enclave, though, like nearby Riverdale or the Beach. He explains, in his blog advising a woman to sell and move away, that Leslieville is “iffy” and “a dump” hemmed in by highways and hosting a “smelly” waste treatment plant.

Still, whether Leslieville/South Riverdale becomes so trendy that it reaches some magic gentrification tipping point, some people are feeling angry about the changes in their neighbourhood.

At a minimum, a space for community dialogue is needed.

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