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Death on the streets of Canada

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We literally saw death on the streets of Canada this week in Toronto. In a 48-hour period two homeless men died. On Monday, January 5, a man in his fifties, whose identity has not yet been released, was found in the west end of the city in an abandoned van. On Tuesday January 6, a man now identified as Shabbir Jaffa was found in a bus shelter at the busy intersection of Yonge and Dundas.

Both deaths occurred in an extremely bitter Arctic cold spell. Temperatures ranged from -10 to -14 C but were closer to -20 C with wind chill. The social and political context was also chilling. The Medical Officer of Health had not yet issued an Extreme Cold Weather Alert and the appropriate city officials did not direct the opening of the 24-hour warming centres. Meanwhile, the city's shelter system was operating beyond the City Council approved 90 per cent capacity. The volunteer-run Out of the Cold program, which the city relies on to provide over 800 spaces per week, was packed as usual. To add insult to injury, years of funding cuts to agencies that provide shelter, food and health care to homeless people left organizations stretched and diminished in their ability to respond to emergency conditions.

Death on the streets of Canada. Déjà vu.

In 1996 three homeless men froze to death on the streets of Toronto and people in the city and across the country reacted with horror and shock. They mobilized, rallied, marched, fought for more services and in Toronto we formed a coalition that insisted on a coroner’s inquest. At the conclusion of what became known as the Freezing Deaths Inquest, I admit that I naively believed that the various levels of government would take note and respond to the inquest recommendations. Although the presiding coroner, a medical doctor, would not allow the word housing to be used by witnesses, or allow evidence on affordable and supportive housing to be presented, the very able five-person jury still made important recommendations on housing (the upstream solution) but also many service related recommendations that would save lives in the short term (the downstream solution). Toronto's now infamous cold-alert system evolved from this process.

This week I witnessed rigidity and callousness in the (non) actions of city managers and public health officials who refused to call a cold alert and open warming centres. But, it's not the first time.

I'll never forget the Sunday morning one year after the first cluster of freezing deaths. A reporter called me to say the body of a man had been found in an aboveground parking garage on Adelaide St. West and did I have a comment? Jack Layton, then a Toronto city councillor, and I went to the site where Garland Sheppard, known as "Newf" on the street, had succumbed to the cold in his makeshift bed of sleeping bags and blankets. This was the day I woke up to the cold reality of politics and health in this city. You see on that night, the City of Toronto had also not called a cold weather alert or opened a warming centre and it had been –17 C with a wind chill of -30.

For decades I've worked alongside frontline workers such as Gaetan Heroux and Beric German and we have watched and tried to stop the plague of death that targets people who are homeless. My large collection of death files and our campaigns to prevent death are now in the City of Toronto Archives.

They are records that tell a very shameful story. In 1998, the bodies of two homeless men were found at Queen and Sherbourne Streets. I told Toronto Star journalist Cathy Dunphy: "It's almost like a slaughter. Two in a row this week, it's too much. A society can't assimilate this any longer." Other records tell the story of the tuberculosis outbreak, the violence, and the deaths by exposure or fire.

By 1999, the death rate was so significant that Toronto Disaster Relief Committee had declared homelessness a national disaster. We sent a report titled Death on the Streets of Canada to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that was reviewing Canada's compliance with the International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights.  Our report focused on Article 6(1) of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: "Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life." In addition, we pointed out that Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains a similar guarantee: "the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the rights not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." Our evidence covered the range of horrors from the cancellation of federal and provincial housing programs to welfare cuts to systemic discrimination.

The bad news is that deaths have continued to rise across the country. There are now over 700 names on Toronto's Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity, and those are only the names we know of. On Tuesday. January 13 at 12 p.m. at least two more names will be added.

The good news is that similar to the public response to the 1996 freezing deaths, there has been a groundswell of anger and frustration towards the city and politicians' inaction on the shelter emergency. People from all walks of life are mobilizing for a just response. They are using social media, spontaneously creating vigils, lobbying policy makers, planning to give deputations, even partaking in direct action. It was a welcome surprise when Toronto's new mayor John Tory took the unusual step of asking the City Manager to open the warming centres while the Medical Officer of Health continued to refuse to call an alert until the temperature reached -15 C.

I'm heartened to see rabble-rousing about homelessness on the rise! While we fight for the right to housing, this week has been a tragic but important reminder that the right to shelter is also a human right.


Photo: Yonge-Dundas bus shelter memorial, courtesy of Tanya Gulliver-Garcia. 




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