Skit highlights meager funds for needy

The Rev. Andrea Budgey dressed up as Effie Trinket flanked by Hunger Games-style peacekeepers.
Effie Trinket, played by the Rev. Andrea Budgey, reads out the name of a social service strategy that will be pitted against another for funds from Toronto’s budget. She is flanked by ‘peacekeepers’ played by the Rev. Maggie Helwig, left, and Leah Watkiss.
 on March 1, 2018
Michael Hudson

Group presses city to honour commitments

Effie Trinket, the shallow character from the popular movie The Hunger Games, came to Toronto’s City Hall on Jan. 10 for a “reaping” –  choosing which groups would be pitted against each other for a share of the city’s social service funding in 2018.

Ms. Trinket, in full costume and elaborate hairstyle, was played by the Rev. Andrea Budgey, the chaplain at Trinity College. She was assisted by two “peacekeepers” from the dystopian movie – the Rev. Maggie Helwig, the incumbent of St. Stephen in-the-Fields, Toronto, and Leah Watkiss, the program director for Social Justice, Peace and Care of Earth for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.

The women put on the skit outside Mayor John Tory’s office as about 25 members of the interfaith group Faith in the City looked on. The group, which is made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, advocates for better social programs and services for the poor and marginalized.

Her voice full of enthusiasm, Ms. Trinket welcomed everyone to Toronto’s first ever Hunger Games and performed a reaping – drawing the names of two city strategies out of a bowl that would fight each other for funds. (In the movie, Ms. Trinket chooses two young people from her district to fight other teens to the death in the dominant city of the Capitol.)

With great compassion, she reassured those watching that they would get their chance to compete for funds as well. “Don’t worry: every equity-seeking group will have the chance to fight for its life before it’s all over,” she said. When the 10-minute skit ended, she and her helpers left with a flourish, to the applause of those present.

Elin Goulden, the diocese’s Social Justice and Advocacy consultant, said Faith in the City put on the skit to show how the city was not fulfilling its commitments and was making groups fight each other for what little money was available.

She said city council has approved 12 action plans and strategies in recent years to combat poverty and improve the quality of life for Toronto residents. These plans include improved access to child care, more affordable housing, expanded nutrition programs for students, free transit for children and lower fares for low income residents, and enacting the city’s climate change plan. Council unanimously adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy in 2015 and Mayor Tory has said tackling poverty is one of the most important commitments of council.

However, the city had provided just $9 million in its preliminary 2018 budget to pay for the programs –  far short of the $41 million needed to fund them. Citizens and not-for-profit organizations made deputations to the city’s budget committee in early January to recommend how the $9 million should be spent.

“We believe that the budget process pits groups and citizens against each other to fight for scarce funding for programs that city council has already approved, and that shouldn’t be the case,” said Ms. Goulden. “If city council has approved it, they should find the funding for it.”

She added: “Who’s to say that students in need of nutritional supplements are more deserving than homeless people? It’s pitting people against each other and creating angst and sense of scarcity.”

Faith in the City called on the city to fully fund the programs, plus additional actions that have been approved by council but were not in the preliminary budget. They also wanted the city to set clear targets and timelines for reducing poverty and waiting lists for housing, child care and recreation programs.

Members of Faith in the City and other social justice advocates met with city councillors and staff and made their concerns known at the budget deputations. In late January, the city’s budget committee indicated that more money would be put into the 2018 budget to pay for the programs.

Ms. Goulden described it as a “win” for advocacy. “I think, given that this is an election year, and given the amount of publicity the city has been getting around failing to fund their programs, that they decided to find the money for these programs, at least for this year.”

She expressed a note a caution, however, that the funding would continue. “The problem is that the funding for these measures – some from borrowing, some from taking money from reserve funds, and relying on a hot housing market to generate sufficient Land Transfer Tax – isn’t really sustainable long-term. If this is just an election-year sop, and we go back to austerity next year, we won’t be further ahead. So looking at a modest increase in property taxes and other revenue tools is what’s needed.”

She said Faith in the City will be urging council to provide sustainable long-term funding for the programs and to create a better budget process. “We want to keep holding their feet to the fire, saying that we’re not forgetting what they’ve promised and we do intend them to live up to their promises.”

She urged Anglicans in the city to talk to their councillor. “We have a municipal election coming up this fall, and I think if enough people make it clear to their councillors that they want to see these actions funded in the future and are prepared to see a modest increase in their property taxes over the cost of inflation, we could start to see council implement these strategies.” City council was expected to vote on the 2018 budget in February


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