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What's a homeless life worth?

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‎If over 3,000 people sign a petition to a mayor asking him to save homeless lives, does he hear?

If hundreds of intelligent and passionate citizens plead to their city councillor to do the same, do they hear?

Apparently not. That's been the experience in Toronto.

The petition in question asked Mayor John Tory to open one or both of the federal armouries for emergency shelter.

On January 10, about 30 people joined me after Toronto's monthly homeless memorial to deliver the petition to Mayor Tory's city hall office. For some, it was their first time entering city hall and their first act of political advocacy. The group included front-line workers, homeless people, seniors and members of the clergy.

The City of Toronto had that same morning announced plans, which I support, to track all homeless deaths. This is an initiative that others and myself have been demanding for 30 years. But while the city will now track homeless deaths, they seem to hide from efforts to prevent them.

Dr. Naheed Dosani has asked in a TED talk "what's a life worth?"  While he was speaking about end-of-life care, the question is both succinct and relevant to the question of saving homeless lives.

Citizens felt so strongly about what a homeless life is worth that they poured their heart out in comments attached to their petition signature. Thirty pages of these comments were also delivered to Mayor Tory. Here are some of them:

"Dear Major Tory, I'm signing because it is a dereliction of your civic duty for our mayor and city council, with shelters running at capacity, to shut homeless citizens out while safe spaces like our armouries lie unused. This sends a clear message that the lives of such residents so not count in our "world class" city. Many in our city reject that message! Do the right thing and open the armouries -- NOW, please, before more people die or are hospitalized."

"It makes me very angry that I have to petition my government to make a small concession to keep people alive in this weather."

"I'm signing this petition because I think it's disgusting that so many people are left in inhumane conditions, living on the streets as we pass them on the way to dinner, cinema, shopping and the like. If we have available spaces that could be used to protect people from these horrific conditions then we have a moral obligation to do so. If Toronto really is a world-class mega city, please explain why people are dying on our streets while we watch? It's shameful and unnecessary."

"I work downtown, and I am horrified with the amount of people who are in the street and the cold they are enduring. I also see them being expelled from doorsteps and their belongings thrown in the garbage often, and the deprivation of humanity they have to endure. This is plain wrong in a rich city like Toronto."

"In Toronto, a city that drips with wealth, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we are fighting to ensure that human beings are not left to perish on the cold streets. Shame on all those responsible! We demand the federal armouries be opened to shelter the homeless immediately."

"Public spaces should be used to prevent public deaths."

"We must treat our fellow citizens humanely. Not providing shelter in a climate like ours is governmental murder."

The response to the petition and citizen advocacy has been deafening. Neither the broader Toronto city council body nor politicians representing senior levels of government have stepped up. Most have regurgitated city bureaucrats excuses or offered bragging points on steps they have taken such as increasing down payment requirements for home purchases or ridiculous promises related to the yet to be announced national housing strategy, or their intent to increase consistency in mortgage rules.

I think nurse and advocate Leigh Chapman best sums up people's sentiment in her communication to Mayor Tory and city councillors:

"Your inaction in this dire situation is both shocking and negligent. You are willfully turning a blind eye to some of Toronto's most vulnerable individuals; an act that is morally reprehensible. It is only a matter of time before we face more preventable homeless deaths due to the lack of available shelter."

Ears plugged, head in the sand, doors locked, workers' hands tied behind their back, voices silenced, homeless peoples' spirits broken.

Human decency at its worse.

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Photo credit: Cathy Crowe

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