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Toronto leads the country with inaction on homelessness

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A homeless person's cart of belongings in a bus shelter has a sign on it that says "Sick and homeless. I need help."

People who are homeless are not simply begging for change, as in loonies or toonies. In Toronto they are also begging for real help, evident by this man’s sign on his belongings at a busy intersection in downtown Toronto:

"Sick and homeless. I need help."

Advocates and front-line workers are also calling for city officials and the mayor to provide radical change to how they respond to mass homelessness. Recommendations include the fast tracking of new emergency shelters (it now takes, on average, 18 months to open one), the immediate opening of a federal armoury for shelter, and expansion of low-barrier 24 hour warming/cooling centres that meet shelter standards.

Over the last year, a broad range of people have diligently deputed, petitioned and orchestrated meetings with senior shelter bureaucrats, making the case that the city must deal with homelessness as a social welfare disaster.

There are several indications that Toronto is fed up with City Hall and Mayor Tory’s inaction.

For the first time in its 30 year history, member faith groups in the Out of the Cold (OOTC) program stepped up and formed an alliance to decry the fact that the city was overly relying on their charitable efforts and not providing real and adequately staffed shelter beds. They reported they had to turn people away due to higher demand and that their guests had nowhere to go.

Meanwhile, over 12,000 people signed a petition calling for Mayor Tory to ask the federal government to allow the city to open an armoury for emergency shelter.

Thirty one agencies signed an open letter by Social Planning Toronto, expressing concern about the shelter emergency and calling for the opening of an emergency shelter.

I’m writing about this in June because the city’s streets, parks, ravines are sites of human suffering and death.

This year, in the first three months of tracking homeless deaths, Toronto Public Health’s work was so capable that they uncovered 27 deaths, three to four times the number we were tracking at the monthly Homeless Memorial. Not only that, the average age of death was 51 - - 30 years younger than the Canadian average.

We have repeatedly told the mayor, city councillors, the City’s manager and the general manager of shelters that the crisis is not now, nor has it ever been, just about the winter.

Last week many of us went to City Hall to tell them again. This effort was in response to a city staff report that we believed would further entrench dangerous conditions. Instead of opening an emergency shelter it calls for expanded warming centres that will not have to meet City of Toronto Shelter Standards.

This is problematic for several reasons. Warming centres that don't meet shelter standards might have inadequate washrooms and showers, a lack of beds and lockers, and carry higher risk for the transmission of infectious diseases and illnesses.

The report also recommended the addition of "surge capacity" or flex beds (which are mostly mats on the floor) to existing shelters. This will result in unhealthy and dangerous overcrowding to an already close to 99% capacity system. I doubt the Humane Society would be allowed to do this to dogs or cats.

But adding insult to injury, the report recommends that the 30 year old OOTC program, run by volunteers, should be expanded!

City councillors passed the report.

The evidence in our deputations should have made them weep. Stories of families with children in refugee shelters sleeping on couches in a TV room or being sent to Tim Horton's, a 15 month-long Group A Streptococcus outbreak that has closed shelter beds and is not yet resolved, people moving nightly through the winter’s Out of the Cold program to sleep on a mat, people dying at the rate of 2 per week.

This is why we demonstrate. On December 15th of last year, I joined the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) for a rally and march calling for the city to immediately open shelter space such as a federal armoury.

A.J. Withers of OCAP obtained the following emails through a Freedom of Information request and they are instructive.

December 14, 2016. Patricia Anderson (the city’s shelter spokesperson) to Kevin Moraes in Mayor Tory’s office. Subject line: Toronto Star deadline request: Question about shelters re OCAP march. "Toronto Star’s Emily Mathieu is looking for information…She is asking specifically whether the City is looking to open the Armoury."

December 14. Rob Cressman (then shelter General Manager) writes to Anderson: "Just spoke to Kevin - - he is working with his comms (communication) folks on some wording to provide to the media from the Mayor’s Office. Re the armoury, he is going to put that at the bottom of his list, after talking about everything else we are doing. And he is planning on saying that we are looking at all options for adequate, safe, space. This implies that the armouries may not be ‘adequate’, but may be considered as a last resort."

A few days later Mr. Cressman emailed longtime city housing staffer Simon Liston.

December 21. Cressman to Liston: "Do you recall how many times (and perhaps when) the armoury has been opened for homeless people?"

December 21. Liston to Cressman: "I know the Moss Park Armoury was opened at least a couple of times before amalgamation and afterwards, Moss Park and Fort York armouries were opened I believe 4 times between them. The military were always a reluctant participant and the practice stopped because the military needed the space to train reserves for duty in Afghanistan. I remember that the people who sheltered in the armouries liked the safety and security and the high ceilings created a feeling of openness which was also appreciated."

January 3, 2017. Kevin Moraes, Policy Advisor, Office of Mayor John Tory to Cathy Crowe: "In relation to your suggestion that Federal armouries be opened for additional emergency shelter, this step is also included in our Winter Readiness Plan. But City staff do not believe armouries provide adequate or appropriate shelter space, which is why they are working with all City divisions, other levels of government and not-for-profit sector to find more appropriate places for vulnerable individuals, including decommissioned schools. We are working to ensure that appropriate shelters spaces are brought online quickly so that vulnerable individuals have a safe and secure place to get out of the cold this winter. The Mayor cares deeply about this issue and thanks you for your insight and your continued leadership.”

People often say we have a weak mayor system in Canada. Yes, morally weak.

Image: Cathy Crowe. 

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