Two days after Remembrance Day, people gathered to mourn the loss of those who died on the streets of Toronto the previous month and to renew their call for a national housing strategy.
Close to 700 names now appear on the homeless memorial board outside the Church of the Holy Trinity.
“I’m fearful for this winter,” said Doug Johnson, a street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries, a church located in downtown Toronto.
“Street level homelessness has risen significantly again to levels not seen since 2005.”
This month, they remembered five men. One of them was a man in his early 20’s who took his own life after living many years in poverty at or near the street.
“This is a crisis in our country that people mention every once in a while but that we have not seriously tackled,” said Johnson.
“Which is the much higher rate of suicides among those who are homeless and impoverished and from our First Nations.”
Another one had been a published poet who lived on the streets. A third man had been housed precariously for a few months but had been homeless for most of his life.
Nobody knew anything about the fourth man. That’s not uncommon.
And the fifth had been a bicycle courier who was killed in a collision on a downtown Toronto street.
“He was a well known bike courier who’s been on the streets for years,” said Johnson. “He slept in shelters regularly.”
More than 30 mourners bowed their heads for a moment of silence. The flames flickered from their candles. The courtyard fell silent. A couple looked down on the vigil from the restaurant adjacent to the church.
“I just wish we had as much front page publicity and had the money to build affordable housing rather than these moments of silence which are really sad,” said singer/songwriter Tom Smarda, who regularly sings at the monthly homeless memorial vigils.
The Street Haven Women’s Choir also shared their gift of music at Tuesday’s vigil. The Choir was founded in 2000 by Geoffrey Butler, Artistic Director, Toronto Choral Society.
Made up of women who use, or have used, the services of Street Haven, as well as staff and friends, the Choir rehearses weekly at Street Haven, a women’s only shelter with a drop-in and other supportive services.
“We know this winter is going to be cold in the weather,” said Michael Shapcott, a housing activist. “But it’s also going to be cold politically unless we all continue to raise our voices.”
That’s because the city is looking at a $21 million cut in provincial funding for housing and homelessness programs.
“So one of our demands is going to be that the city cannot allow that cut to be passed on to frontline agencies,” said Shapcott. “And ultimately to the people who rely on the services and programs.”
Last week, NDP MP Marie-Claude Morin introduced a private member’s bill, an Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians.
It’s not the first time (nor will it be the last) the NDP has introduced such a bill in the House of Commons.
If passed, Bill C-400 would require the federal government to establish a fully funded national housing strategy.
“Unfortunately, the government did not speak in favour of it,” said Shapcott.
“They said they’re doing more than any other government has done in the history of Canada around homelessness.”
Homeless memorial founder Bonnie Briggs reminded everyone that homeless people who’ve died on the streets of Toronto are no less brave than those who died in times of war.
“The war being fought is for basic human dignity,” said Briggs from a poem she co-wrote with Sherman Hesselgrave, incumbent, Church of the Holy Trinity.
“Not against foreign principalities and powers but against apathy, greed and malignity. Against such foes who bring a complete resolve - not only flowers.”