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Anti-poverty activists fight for more shelter beds in Toronto

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Shelter now.

That’s what anti-poverty activists are asking for. Enough safe, clean shelter beds so homeless people don’t have to risk their lives sleeping on the streets, in the parks or alleyways of Toronto. 

And possibly freeze to death. Like Michel Avon almost did. 

“On the street, I froze both of my feet and couldn’t walk no more,” said Avon. “I was about to die there.”

Then he got housing. But only after he’d lived on the streets for 18 years.

“It’s fucking rough,” said Avon. 

“It’s ugly. You don’t feel nothing. You don’t feel the cold no more. You’re hungry but you’re not. You can go without food for a few days. You can be up for a week. And then sleep for three days.

“And sleeping in the cold for three days is a bad thing. Because you might not wake up.”

But when Avon did finally wake up, he was buried in almost an inch of ice.

“It took me eight hours to get out,” he said. “It’s been ugly but you gotta do what you gotta do.”

If he’d remained in the shelter system, he thinks he’d be dead by now. After he woke up at one shelter with a knife to his throat, he decided that he would rather take his chances on the streets.

Avon knows lots of people trapped in the shelter system for years.

“It don’t make sense to me,” said Avon. “It should be kind of a progress, a step to get out of there.” 

At 71, John Cuthbert still relies on shelters and Out of the Cold programs. His old age pension doesn’t give him enough money to rent an apartment.

“I’ve already applied for (social) housing but I’m so far down the list,” said Cuthbert.

With the influx of homeless people coming to Toronto from other parts of the province or country, Cuthbert said the shelters fill up quickly.

“If you don’t get a ticket at the beginning (of the night) then you’re sort of screwed.”

But Cuthbert manages to get a bed on most nights. He knows when to show up so he usually only has to stand in line for half an hour. Others stand in line for up to three hours.

“It’s crowded, people have issues and it shouldn’t be happening that way,” he said. “The City’s got a lot of money and they should spend it on the homeless.”

Cuthbert doesn’t fear for his safety. 

“You get used to it,” he said. “You make friends there and everybody watches everybody else’s back.”

That’s assuming you can even get a bed.

Brian DuBourdieu spent 15 years on the streets and in the shelter system before finally securing housing seven months ago.

But he’s still got friends who are forced to rely on the shelter system.

“I know there’s no beds in the shelter system,” said DuBourdieu. “I have friends that haven’t been getting beds.”

On a typical day, he said people have to wait five or six hours to find out whether or not they have a bed for the night.

If not, they head back to the referral centre on Peter Street and wait to see if something becomes available.

Assuming they’re lucky enough to secure a bed, they have to contend with the dangers of sleeping in what are often described as overcrowded, violent shelters.

“There’s intimidation, robbery,” said DuBourdieu. “Very unsafe conditions for a lot of people.”

Since the City has turned a blind eye to the shelter bed crisis, anti-poverty activists decided to take matters into their own hands. Numerous appeals to the City have fallen on deaf ears.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and their allies met at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Friday morning. 

Another homeless person died on Thursday night in the east end of Toronto. The seventh homeless death this year.

“We are preparing today to take decisive action,” said Clarke, addressing a crowd of almost 150 people.

“If they’re not going to provide shelter, we’re going to establish shelter.”

A place where people can sleep safely.

Street Health, a a non-profit community-based agency that works with homeless and under-housed people in Toronto, has heard numerous stories of clients waiting outside in lineups for hours in all kinds of weather trying to get shelter beds. 

Only to be disappointed.

Or outreach workers put on hold for an hour trying to speak to the central shelter registry.

“There are clients who would rather risk freezing to death on the streets than spend a night in an overcrowded, unsafe, undignified shelter bed,” said Victory Lall, a street nurse at Street Health.

In the 2013 budget, the City voted to cut emergency shelter by 110 beds per night.

“For many years, homeless people, agency workers did the polite way of trying to get shelters open,” said Cathy Crowe, street nurse and anti-poverty activist.

They spoke to politicians. Did the deputations. Did the research.

“And we really weren’t listened to until we did more direct action.”

Protests. Demonstrations. Marches.

And several times they were successful in getting emergency shelters open. Moss Park Armoury. Fort York Armoury. The old Princess Margaret Hospital. The old Doctor’s Hospital. The old Murrary Street nursing residence.

“And we can do that again,” said Crowe.

“This City has had to rely on churches and synagogues opening their basements for 25 years. It’s helped to save lives but it’s let the City off the hook.”

Following the speeches and a meal, OCAP and their allies left the Church of the Holy Trinity and headed over to City Hall, where they set up an emergency shelter outside the office of the Mayor.

“No more homeless deaths,” chanted the crowd.

They were prepared to negotiate with the City, but no one came out to meet with them. 

Not surprising though.

“We owe it all of those people that we knew that have died on those streets to take a stand today,” said Gaetan Heroux, an anti-poverty activist who’s worked in the Downtown Eastside for over two decades.

“To say that we will no longer watch our people die on the streets while you create situations that are impossible to live in.”

Heroux described going to Maxwell Meighen, a Salvation Army men’s hostel, at 10 am on a weekday morning and watching 75-100 men sitting in a room meant to hold only 50 people, who were watching television in the middle of a cold weather alert.

“Without enough chairs,” said Heroux. “Half of them are asleep because they couldn’t sleep during the night.”

Heroux knew where he was going to sleep on Friday night. But homeless people don’t have that luxury.

“Everyone should know where they’re going to sleep tonight,” he said.

The names of 27 homeless people who’ve died since last August were read aloud by Doug Johnson, a street pastor at Sanctuary Ministries.

“It’s the inaction of people in the offices around this rotunda that has killed many of those people,” said Johnson.

“Some of them would have died anyway. But even the counsellors on the left who wouldn’t take this seriously are responsible.”

When left wing counsellors had a choice to fight for more shelter bed funding and restore the funding lost under CSUMB, Johnson said they chose only to fight for the CSUMB funding.

“We’d really like to hear from some of them,” said Clarke. 

“Because if ever there was a time and an opportunity to take a stand for social justice, it’s right now.”

Councillor Adam Vaughan later spoke to the group and promised to put forward a motion to council for an emergency debate on the City’s shelter crisis.

“Check in time at shelter City Hall is anytime,” said OCAP organizer Liisa Schofield.

“There’s enough beds here for everybody,” shouted one person.

“Somebody call Peter Street and tell them there’s beds over here,” yelled another.

Late Friday evening, police were called in after activists refused to leave City Hall when the building closed. 

Those who still wouldn’t leave were arrested and released with a summons for notice for trespass to property. They’ll appear in court some time in March.

Clarke made it clear that OCAP and its allies will not be ignored by City Council.

“This is a problem of your politics and the way it’s hurting people and you’ve gotta deal with it,” said Clarke.

“If you don’t deal with it today, you’ll deal with it on a bigger scale tomorrow and the next day.”

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