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Brutal winter weather spurs call to action to protect the homeless from freezing to death

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This winter there has been a string of Cold Weather Alerts declared by the City of Toronto. What this essentially means is an alert is issued when the temperature or wind chill is expected to reach levels ranging from -30°C to -55°C for at least two hours depending on your location.

So far, during the winter of 2014-15, Extreme Cold Weather Alerts have been issued on 27 days. 

These alerts allow the city to provide more options for people who are experiencing homelessness to stay warm; including opening up more space in emergency shelters, drop-in centres, 24-hour street respite, housing help and 24-hour street outreach and assistance to find permanent housing.

While the city maintains that it is undertaking all it can to manage the cold crisis, members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) feel differently; as they are on the front lines of the homeless cold crisis which has already claimed three lives in Toronto. Yet the true statistics may not be known as someone could easily freeze to death in a poorly heated rooming house or burn themselves to death sleeping near an open flame.

On Wednesday February 18, 2015, an OCAP delegation demanding the city commit to reducing Toronto shelter occupancy levels to a maximum of 90 per cent by opening new space went to city hall.

At first, Mayor John Tory’s office was barricaded by security and Toronto police and remained inaccessible to the OCAP delegation for 45 minutes until the OCAPers threatened to confront the mayor at every public event he attended until they were heard.

Shortly after this threat, three members of the delegation were escorted into the boardroom to meet with the deputy mayor and two of his senior staff to discuss their concerns.

According to OCAP, “Warming centres, only open during the coldest weather, are packed and official figures, though they confirm the 90 per cent policy has not been met, seriously understate the full scale of the problem. Within the men's system, even the notorious Seaton House that many try to avoid having to use, is faced with such demand that cots are being put down in common areas.”

For their efforts, the delegation was presented with a letter that stated that the city was taking up the challenge to achieve 90 per cent occupancy rates seriously, as well as pointing out that the 2015 city budget would include the provision of $7.9 million dollars towards that aim.

Fearing what could happen to the city’s homeless until then, OCAP demanded that a new, major housing facility be opened for the next several weeks until the cold weather passed, stopping the housing/homeless crisis cycle.

A letter from the Seeds of Hope Foundation, which was distributed to the three city officials, states, “This winter has seen unprecedented suffering by individuals who are homeless in our wealthy city. Our community resource centre, 6 St. Joseph House, has been overwhelmed by individuals desperate for a place to stay.

We have had 10 to 20 individuals staying each night for the past 45 days. Human being cannot function on no sleep, no food and no hope. The stress of having basic needs not met on a daily basis causes many of the unnecessary problems we see today in our legal and mental health systems. We are not equipped to be a shelter but we have been a refuge for individuals who have had no other safe choice for survival -- including many living in ravines and the streets, who have come to 6 St. Joseph because of the extreme cold, and because they have been told that it is a safe place.

More news on any outcome to come.

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