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John Bonnar is an independent journalist covering social justice events in and around Toronto through print, photo, audio, video and slideshows. You can connect with him on Facebook (John Bonnar) or on Twitter at @johnb98 or on YouTube at johnb98.

Homeless deaths mounting at a record pace in Toronto

| June 11, 2013
Photo: John Bonnar

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Each month, more names appear on the board.

"And we don't know the exact number because this list isn’t comprehensive," said Doug Johnson, street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries in Toronto.

"We miss many people. The City keeps no rigorous track of the names of people who have died in our midst without housing."

Homeless deaths. An avoidable tragedy. An avoidable disaster.

"So we come each month to remember the names," said Johnson, standing on the steps outside the Church of the Holy Trinity on Tuesday during the monthly homeless memorial vigil.

"And we remember the names in a way that helps us to advocate for a better tomorrow. The homeless memorial has alway been a place that’s both about remembering and about activism. It's about honouring the names and the people and the lives who have died on our streets. But also saying as loudly as we can that this should not continue."

To passersby. To politicians at City Hall. And to those at Old City Hall who are more concerned with prosecuting men and women for panhandling or minor alcohol violations than they are with finding people housing.

"And that's been a regular pattern and it's growing worse here in Toronto," said Johnson.

"And it's all three levels of government that are responsible for it. And we see the results of that on the homeless memorial list."

Yet almost ten years ago, there were serious efforts made -- including the requisite funding -- to combat the homelessness problem.

"We had many criticisms of those efforts," said Johnson.

"They often left people in inadequate housing. Often left people out who shouldn't have been left out. And they often traded off building good, affordable housing and addressing the root causes of homelessness."

But those efforts still made an impact.

"And we saw a radical drop in the number of names on the homeless memorial list," said Johnson.

This year, however, sixteen names have been added. At that pace, the number of new names will exceed last year’s total, a significant increase over the prior three years.

Twenty-six-year-old Terra Janine Gardner, a First Nations woman, died on May 14 after she was hit by a train near Summerhill subway station.

"She was on the verge of something new and different in life," said Johnson.

"Terra was a lovely woman with a whip-smart sense of humour. Someone who was very tough and able to handle herself on the street. But also subject to much violence and abuse herself."

She volunteered and helped out at Sanctuary Ministries. Attended many hours of counselling.

"She was growing," said Johnson. "She was changing. She was talking about things she could do differently in life when she was tragically struck by a train above the Summerhill station on the CP Railway."

APTN National News reported that "she was also a witness in a murder investigation and had allegedly been receiving death threats about testifying according to people close to her."

"Terra Gardner is believed to have been hit on the tracks near Young Street and Summerhill Avenue at about 10:25 p.m. close to a popular spot where people are known to drink by the tracks. Two other people are believed to have been with her at the time of her death."

"Gardner had been receiving death threats and was being called a rat for providing information in the Toronto homicide of First Nations man Leo Buswa in 2010."

Gardner struggled with many things, including depression.

"We are troubled that during the course of this murder trial she was forced to be a witness," said Johnson, on Tuesday.

"There were threats that she would be put in jail for many months if she didn't testify. The City, the system and the police were much more interested in housing her to keep her as a witness in trial than finding her adequate (permanent) housing."

Proving once again that housing is the answer to homelessness. The answer to homeless deaths. That more shelter space isn't the answer.

"(Because) somebody who dies in a shelter is still dying a homeless death," said Johnson. "And this happens on a regular basis."

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