Young Torontonians hope new mayor will make affordability a top priority

Now that the 2023 City of Toronto budget has been passed and there’s a mayoral election on the horizon, young Torontonians believe there's still a huge need to improve their living conditions in the city.

“Young people have not been a priority for the city and were not a priority in the city's budget,” Stephen Mensah, executive director of the Toronto Youth Cabinet, Toronto’s official youth advocacy body, said.

Twenty-two-year-old Mensah says the rise in violence, school violence, carjackings and armed pharmacy robberies have been disproportionately committed by young people, calling it a matter of improving young people’s social economic conditions to stop what led them to these acts.

Toronto’s 2023 budget’s additional $2 million for anti-violence programming to support youth and families is not enough, the Youth Toronto Cabinet wrote in a statement. It is urging council to match its support for the Toronto Police Service with prevention efforts for youth.

“There’s a huge need for the government to accept and improve these conditions in an upstream way and not a downstream approach like policing, which tends to be the norm,” Mensah said.

The 2023 budget will see the hiring of 50 additional Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) special constables to “increase safety and security,” as well as 200 more police officers — 16 for neighbourhood community policing.

Zain Khurram, 19, said he feels uncomfortable and scared when riding a transit bus with police officers present. “Public transit is a right for everyone and no one should have to feel uncomfortable riding public transit,” he said.

Khurram overheard the officers joking about their first arrests, which ended up being someone he knew of who often has mental health issues and uses the TTC system to seek refuge. “The police’s response was to lock them up and put them in jail for a night — and they were joking about it while on the bus. In my head, I was thinking this person needs the right support and you’re not giving it to them.”

Khurram, a student volunteer at TTC Riders, a grassroots transit advocacy agency, believes policing won’t work, advocating for community safety ambassadors instead. “We need trained TTC staff who can handle intervention and know how to de-escalate a situation and better address the crisis the person is experiencing.”

While successfully pushing for more youth hubs in Toronto, Mensah said the creation of a summer youth employment program and addressing community safety and affordability are necessary to substantially improve socio-economic conditions for young people in Toronto.

To “ensure transit expansion can continue,” the 2023 budget includes a 10-cent hike for single-fare tickets, which Khurram said adds up, especially for those low-income riders like shift workers or students.

“We should be welcoming riders with lower fares and more efficient, accessible and reliable service,” Khurram said.

Already anticipating delays in TTC construction, Khurram said transit users shoulder the inconvenience of using shuttle buses when construction deadlines are not met. Khurram led a community letter-writing meetup to elected officials in Scarborough on Feb. 19 to educate and unite TTC riders in the area.

With the upcoming mayoral election, Khurram said, “We need someone who understands the need for transit in the city.

“We need transit champions who understand the hardships that people who aren't as privileged to have cars have and what those who rely on public transit go through.”

Nairah Ahmed, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer