It started in 1998 when they declared homelessness a national disaster. But last week, after 14 years of advocacy, activism and action, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) finally closed its doors.
An unlikely collection of people that included a lawyer, a formerly homeless man and a Bay Street investment manager first met in the spring of 1998 to address the growing problem of homelessness in Toronto and the rest of the country.
“Many of the services that we won exist today,” said Beric German, a founding member of TDRC, at Tuesday’s monthly homeless memorial vigil outside the Church of the Holy Trinity.
“And we can be thankful for that.”
German reminded those attending today’s memorial vigil that many organizations will continue the fight to end homelessness.
But that won’t be an easy task, especially as the City continues to close much needed shelter beds.
When Bob Rose started working in Toronto, there were only a few drop-in centres. Those places where people gather who are trying to survive on the streets.
Now there are many.
He never imagined, 14 years later, that he would be standing beside a homeless memorial with over 600 names of men and women who’ve died on the streets of Toronto since 1985.
After the memorial, a group was planning to go to City Hall to stand in witness to the unending homelessness problem plaguing Toronto.
“That’s what we used to do in the early days after every death,” said Rose, another TDRC member. “And then there were so many deaths that we couldn’t keep going. So we came here.”
Even though no names were added to the memorial this month, there are still at least 5,000 people in Toronto who don’t have housing.
“I’m sure there have been people who died last month,” said Greg Cook, one of the homeless memorial organizers. “We just haven’t been able to collect the names.”
As the rental housing crisis continues to worsen, the number of names on the memorial will continue to climb.
At the same time, the federal government remains committed to cutting its investments in affordable housing over the next four years.
In 2010, the Conservatives spent a little over $3 billion dollars. But by 2016, that amount will be down to $1.7 billion dollars.
The National Affordable Housing Initiative, a program to build new homes across Canada, will be terminated.
And the National Homelessness Program, a program that provides a small amount of funding to organizations that provide transitional housing, food programs and medical clinics, will also come to an end in 2014.
“So it’s more important than ever that we raise our voices,” said housing activist and former TDRC member Michael Shapcott.
“That we expect our federal government to meet the housing needs of Canadians.”
In the meantime, many homeless will rely even more on the Out of the Cold Program, a volunteer initiative that consists of congregations from faith groups, community members and advocates who provide safe refuge, hospitality and emergency shelter to the homeless community, that celebrated its 25th anniversary in January.
“The mystery, as we all know it, is that they (homeless people) show us what real love and compassion is,” said Sister Susan, a co-founder of the Out of the Cold Program.
“So this day is dedicated to those throughout the world who do not have enough to eat, that do not have enough shelter, that are cast aside.”