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The heat is on: Toronto must do more to protect the vulnerable

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Handwritten hearts are left outside Toronto Mayor's office. One says 'Please make the right choice and respond to our housing crisis now!!' Photo credit: Paul Salvatori

The City of Toronto's new city-wide heat relief strategy, which includes the creation of a heat relief network of 300 locations where people can go to get cool, represents a terrible omission on the part of the city. They are failing to provide the care and attention at these sites that people who are homeless or frail and elderly living in a high-rise or rooming house might require.

The city could be doing much more but is not. Legally and politically they may have figured out how to justify this. But morally it's wrong; many could needlessly be harmed or die as a result.

The network itself, if it weren't for such misery, is laughable. Just take a look. It is made up of libraries, shopping malls, swimming pools, and splash pads that would normally be open to the public.

In effect, the city has renamed places as "relief" sites that do not seriously provide that relief. A library might have comfortable furniture and be air conditioned. But those are amenities, not life saving.

It is dubious how many are truly reckoning with the danger of summer heat. In Toronto, there are more homeless deaths in July and August than the winter yet any concern for that is often wholly overshadowed by blogs, advertisements, news articles -- a media universe -- that vaunts the fun and entertaining place the city becomes this time of year.

This encourages a celebratory spirit that draws many from around the world, which of course is not itself objectionable. But it hides a dirty secret: while the party is going on people are suffering. Summer is hell for the vulnerable. They do not have the privilege of recreating in it, only surviving as long as they can physically withstand.

The more Toronto gentrifies -- turning into a playground for the rich -- the less it becomes socially responsible. And that's a tragedy. We have the money and infrastructure here to provide people with dignified housing. But the powers that be choose not to.

Disturbingly they are also getting used to it. Our politicians focus on "doing business" with the wealthy and not showing enough compassion for the large and growing number outside that group. Their humanity is being forgotten. Developing luxury condos, commercial spaces for high-end boutiques and exclusive (yet ridiculous) pop-up restaurants under the Gardiner Expressway have become more important.

The proliferation of eye-catching selfies among these places further distract us from the ugly truth, while fuelling the superficial desire to outdo one's "friends" on platforms like Instagram where the coolest (image-based) lifestyle wins.

The city's refusal to declare homelessness an emergency this year, let alone develop sufficient year-long shelter spaces or a genuine heat relief response, rests on the unspoken but erroneous assumption that a person's worth is based on their instrumental value. By this logic, if they cannot help increase money or power, their worth is negligible. If the city didn't see homelessness this way, they'd be doing plenty more to ensure people's well-being, rather than the minimum as they sadly continue to do.

For this reason they'd be wise to observe the insight of the late Austrian philosopher, Martin Buber:

"No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated encounters occur."

Where I truly see You and vice versa, we embrace each other's humanity. We do not see each other as a "means," which we are mutually challenged to manipulate for our selfish purposes, but as interconnected. Until the city recognizes this basic yet fundamental truth it will, sadly, perpetuate the disaster that is homelessness.

Humanity deserves better. All year round. 

Paul Salvatori is a Toronto-based writer and photojournalist.

Photo credit: Paul Salvatori

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