Direct Action Includes Trying to Solve the Problem

I wrote the following in 2001, just before the first project of St. Clare’s Multifaith
Housing Society
formally opened. While it is rooted in a particular time,
the thoughts continue to have meaning for me.

Some personal reflections

Mon, 29 Oct 2001

I’ve been asked by several people about what is happening with St. Clare’s and 25 Leonard Ave. In summary, renovations are almost completed and we expect the move-ins to occur around December 1st.

I’ve also be asked why an advocate of non-violent direct action forms of protest is involved in what is seen by many as a form of activity at odds with much of my public persona.

This piece should help, I hope, address this.

“To act directly is to address the actual issue of your concern. If you’re working against hunger, it might be simply giving someone a meal. If you’re working against homelessness, it might be taking over an abandoned house and making it liveable. If you want to stop military spending, it might be refusing to pay your income taxes.”

Martin Kelly.

In the next few weeks 51 new units of housing will be coming into existence in Toronto, opening up because people with decades of experience in non-violent resistance felt it was possible to do something direct, practical and concrete to address homelessness in Toronto. After symbolic actions, such as the Queen’s Park Plant-in or May Day on Bay, as a part of Toronto Action for Social Change (TASC), the movement to direct action was not a major leap.

Thus members of TASC could be found joining with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty at direction action housing protests at 88-90 Carlton Street and the Doctors’ Hospital occupation. And members of TASC could also be found putting in bids to purchase buildings for the purpose of converting them to housing.

This search for space was definitively based on hope—that once a suitable building was found, funding would also be found. This hope was proven to be true as support has come from government, religious orders, individuals, co-op organizations and foundations for the work of converting 25 Leonard into affordable, transitional housing.

In the process of attempting to obtain building for conversion to housing, it was quickly felt that a different organization, separate from TASC, was essential—and thus St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society was formed. Our specific mandate is to develop affordable housing for those currently in the shelter and support services networks. St. Clare’s is a registered charity, with published annual reports and annual audits available to our donors and contributors.

Working on the 25 Leonard Project has been an interesting experience. We did not expect, when we began, to be subjected to lengthy appeals and law suites by people in the Kensington Market area opposed to housing those in need—battles we were successful in fighting but expensive both financially and emotionally. Being hit with development levees by the Roman Catholic Separate School Board was a blow that really hurt—and for a brief period threatened the ability of the project to go ahead. Fortunately the City of Toronto agreed to lend St. Clare’s the over $63,000 necessary to cover these fees. Even issues like asbestos containment and contaminated soil removal were problems we had little experience in dealing with until the problem was apparent—and the solutions required hard to come by funds.

We have sat down with neighbours and contractors, architects and city officials to work out problems and find solutions to ensure that at the end of the day 51 units of new transitional housing would be created.

We have reviewed and adapted budget projections, made difficult decisions around furnishing and fixtures and found ways of working together that make sense for a diverse board. We were fortunate to have as staff and consultants people like Jon Harstone and Margo Davidson (yes, the Margo that was part of the Parachute Club), who have poked and prodded us into being a board of management, a challenge given our background in movement activism.

This has not lessened the commitment of the board of St. Clare’s for personal participation in public dissent around housing and justice issues. The majority of our board was in Quebec City and took part in the recent Ontario Common Front protests in Toronto. However, personal commitment to street level politics are seen as personal commitments. St. Clare’s is a formal, focused charitable developer composed of people struggling to bridge these two worlds.

The background of our board is perhaps more typical of those that came together in the late 60s to challenge the ways that new housing was developed. Three were active in the Student Christian Movement. There are people from pagan, Jewish, atheist, Christian and agnostic backgrounds involved. Three had been part of the Alliance for Non-Violent Action. And while three of the directors have been involved as staff or board with various housing organizations, none had experience in developing new housing without a government programme. Yet we’ve done the impossible and new housing exists.

Our participation in street protests are symbolic actions. It is our mainstream work that actually seems to express our commitment to direct action. Symbolic action draws attention to issues. Direct action is taking initiatives that actually solve all or part of the problem. 25 Leonard will provide housing. For St. Clare’s, the opening of 25 Leonard is effective direct action—propaganda by deed that will hopefully encourage others to do the same.

People wanting more information, to make donations, to have someone from St. Clare’s talk to their congregation, community group, union local, etc., contact us at:

138 Pears Ave. #801, Toronto, Ontario M5R 3K6 (416) 929-0397
Charitable Number: 87305-8192


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