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City building starts with community building

Women riding bike in vibrant urban neighbourhood

No one should be left behind in the community-building process, but as cities become bigger and richer, vulnerable people are increasingly falling through the cracks.

Canada's homelessness situation is dire, gun violence remains a devastating issue in our cities, especially in marginalized and racialized communities, and even the design of our buildings and learning environments are excluding people with disabilities.

But as bleak as these issues sound, Ryerson experts are working on the frontlines, looking for ways to make the future better for every citizen. They're coming up with ideas, solutions and approaches that open the city to brighter possibilities.

Covenant House, Toronto

Four walls and a roof

Canada's homelessness problem is spiralling out of control. This year, 325,000 people will be without a place to stay during some or all of the year. Maybe they will find a bed in a crowded shelter or, as is increasingly the case, they won't.

"[Homelessness is] everywhere — big cities, small towns and rural," says Cathy Crowe, Faculty of Arts Distinguished Visiting Practitioner, Member of the Order of Canada and street nurse in Toronto since 1988.

"It's worsening dramatically," she says. "It got worse during the 2008 recession, but it's getting worse again. It's incremental."

There are many factors driving the homelessness problem, but at its core is a shrinking supply of truly affordable housing. Gentrification is reducing the number of rooming houses or low-rent buildings and people are falling off the bottom rung of the housing ladder into shelters.

"People bounce back quite amazingly if their housing is cheap enough that they can still afford food … they put on weight, they can do much better in housing. It's really the number one solution that we can do to help people be better, to have better health."

Cathy Crowe

In Toronto, official city shelters are routinely 98 to 100 per cent full and conditions inside can be horrific: 200 people to a room with just a few feet of space each, shared bathrooms and long lines for food.

Shelters are crowded, loud and often violent. According to Toronto Public Health, the life expectancy of a homeless person is just 48 or 49 years.

In the short term, Crowe says, the city could provide smaller shelters with just one person per room. "The room doesn't have to be super luxurious, it just needs to be decent," she says. Tiny homes and laneway housing might also be part of a quick fix.

The city of the future must look at zoning for more shelters and Canada needs a national housing strategy that tackles the affordability crisis head on.

Colourful playground in park.

A place for everyone

Everybody deserves a place in their community, but too often children with disabilities and their families are excluded at the most basic levels.

"We're still dealing with school settings that don't have any ramps for kids to get in … or the furniture in the space is not adaptable," says School of Early Childhood Studies professor Donna Koller, who studies social inclusion for kids with chronic illness or disabilities.

"The impact that an unfriendly environment has on [a] child's capacity to build relationships and feel a sense of belonging in their own communities — it's huge," she says.

As part of a program of research, Koller and colleagues reviewed roughly 150 studies of interventions designed to promote social inclusion for kids with different accessibility needs. They found that often the child was treated as the problem, rather than the broader societal and environmental issues, like poor building design or a lack of proper equipment.

"This is about building healthy communities over the long-term where people have good, positive social experiences as children and they carry those skills, they carry those experiences, they even carry some of those friendships into adolescence and into adulthood. That's why this is so important. It's not just a childhood issue. It's a societal issue because it doesn't go away."

Donna Koller

The negative experiences of childhood don't go away. A lack of inclusion in youth negatively affects those same people in adulthood, often leading to isolation and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships.

To combat these issues, Koller along with Ryerson colleagues Aurelia Di Santo and Esther Ignagni are now involved in research that provides teacher training in the community to assist educators in creating more inclusive environments for children with disabilities.

They found that often the child was treated as the problem, rather than the broader societal and environmental issues, like poor building design or a lack of proper equipment.

But change is possible. Koller says teachers and service providers need better training, and buildings and public spaces need to better accommodate kids with disabilities. Universal child care would also go a long way to set communities up for future success.

"If you set a really good foundation for all children — because that's what inclusion is about, it's not just about inclusion for children with disabilities, it's inclusion for everybody."

Neighbourhood tribute for victims of 2018 Toronto shooting on Danforth Ave

Photo by Kasuga via the Wikimedia Commons

An end to gun violence

On a warm summer evening in July 2018, a man armed with a semi-automatic pistol started shooting on Danforth Avenue in Toronto. When the spree of horrific violence was over, three people were dead, including the 29-year-old perpetrator, and 13 more were injured.

The number of shooting homicides has been sharply rising in Canada since 2013, but in cities like Toronto, not much has changed says Annette Bailey, professor in the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson, whose research studies the complicated causes of gun violence in Canada.

"We're seeing the same issues in terms of where gun violence is taking place in Toronto," she says. "It's mostly in disadvantaged neighbourhoods." While high-profile mass attacks like the Danforth shooting were uniquely abhorrent, most shooting deaths occur repeatedly in the same communities.

In Canadian cities, the people committing gun violence are frequently marginalized, Black youth who have often already experienced the devastating, prolonged trauma associated with firearm-related crimes.

"Poverty does impact the spread of gun violence, [but] other issues like truancy, fatherless homes, the neighbourhoods that people live in all come together to impact on its spread," says Bailey.

"There's a lack of support among mothers and families because gun violence carries such a social stigma. People tend to blame the victims, they blame those who are affected by the grief. Some of these mothers don't get victim compensation because they are told that their kids were known to police or basically caused their own death."

Annette Bailey

Handguns, the most common weapon used in urban shootings, are often smuggled across the border from the United States or sourced illegally in Canada via theft or licensed gun owners dealing in the black market.

"One young person I spoke to said: 'It's easier to get a gun than it is to get cigarettes.'"

Solving gun violence in Canada won't be as simple as clamping down on gun possession. Bailey says it's about breaking the cycle of trauma and revenge, and tackling the underlying social issues that lead someone to seek out a firearm.

"It's more than access [to guns]," she says. "It's about people's social circumstances, it's about trauma, it's about poverty, it's about youth feeling unworthy, hopelessness. All of those things come together to stir the need to have a gun and use it."


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