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Cutbacks force more homeless to sleep on Toronto streets

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Like so many others, Angel Conception died long before his time. He was only 58 years old when he passed away shortly before Christmas.

Living in shelters and on the street over a number of years can age a person well beyond their years.

At least he was identified.

Others died known only as Jane Doe or John Doe.

“The Jane Does and John Does are particularly sad,” said Doug Johnson, standing before a crowd of more than 40 people at Tuesday’s monthly homeless memorial vigil outside the Church of the Holy Trinity.”

Johnson, a street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries in downtown Toronto, has spent time with many of the men and women who eventually end up on the Homeless Memorial Board that now contains almost 700 names.

“We don’t know much about any of these (unidentified) individuals but they will go up on the Board.”

Along with the three identified men who died in December, there were nine John Does and two Jane Does who died earlier last year -- but only recently confirmed -- that were remembered at Tuesday’s vigil.

“That makes 32 (deaths) that we know of for sure for 2012,” said Johnson. 

“And I believe more names will come in. Which is more names than we’ve put on the Memorial in several years.”

Slowly, Johnson read the names aloud, followed by a moment of silence.

“We know that every one of these deaths is preventable,” said Michael Shapcott, Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute, an independent, non-profit research and policy dedicated to advancing urban health. 

“Affordable housing and services are the critical factor.”

On December 27, the province announced $42 million in new funding for housing and homelessness programs. 

“This wasn’t a spontaneous Christmas sense of goodwill that they decided to display some generosity,” said Shapcott.

“It came as a direct result of a very strong campaign that’s been going on for some time.”

A campaign to force the government to put back almost half of the $100 million that they had previously cut from housing and homelessness programs.

In Toronto, the province has restored $12.3 million of the $21 million in housing and homelessness cuts. 

But only for one year. And nobody knows exactly how the City will use that money.

“Even if they (the province) put back everything that they took away, we still need more to ensure everyone has a good home and the kinds of supports that they need,” said Shapcott.

Without which, the homeless numbers will continue to climb.

“I’m seeing a larger number on the streets,” said Anne Marie Batten, a street nurse in downtown Toronto.

“This year I’m meeting people even from out of province.”

Shelter beds are full, leaving people with no other option than to sleep outside. Last year, Batten treated numerous cases of frostbite.

She also helps clients deal with the emotional trauma of sleeping outside.

“It’s not easy for people out there,” she said.

“So most times I spend my time just chatting with people, establishing trust and getting them inside into a safe space.”

Budget cuts have forced Batten and her colleagues to do a lot of unpaid work in the evenings on their own time.

“Many times the faith based communities pick up the slack for us because they don’t have to rely on provincial funding,” said Batten.

If things don’t improve, Batten is afraid there will be a sharp increase in homeless deaths.

“People will have no option but to stay outside,” she said. “And people will die out here.”

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