Toronto's Homeless Memorial outside of the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto. Credit: Cathy Crowe

In recent months Toronto has seen an explosion in the death rate of people who are homeless. It’s like a slaughter and the term social murder surely applies to the conditions causing these early and often violent deaths.

At the monthly Homeless Memorial on December 14, 34 names of people who died homeless were added to the makeshift memorial outside of the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto. Of those 34 names – 19 people died inside city shelters in the month of October.

A Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) media release for the December memorial describes the situation as unconscionable injustice and states:

“This recent spike in deaths comes on the heels of an already horrific year. Shelter residents’ deaths are 78 per cent higher in the first eight months of 2021 over 2019. This injustice disproportionately impacts Indigenous and Black people in Toronto. Sixty-three per cent of all unhoused people in Toronto are BIPOC. The number of people in Toronto that die of an overdose who don’t have housing keeps rising. In 2019 the number of people who died of an overdose was 10, in 2020 it was 46. As a result of sky-high rents, gentrification, lack of RGI housing and an overflowing shelter system thousands of people suffer and many die. Toronto is still in the midst of a global pandemic. Shelter outbreaks are ongoing. Many services are still suspended, and indoor space isn’t accessible for hundreds who live in encampments.”

If there was a report this month of the death of 34 teachers, construction workers, children in daycare, taxi drivers, or dare I say politicians – wouldn’t we be disgusted and alarmed and demand action?

Toronto is the epicentre of the homelessness disaster and housing crisis across the country. These deaths are happening in your communities too, probably just on a different scale, yet the numbers will still be shocking. Do you hear about them?

I was shocked to learn that in London, Ontario homeless community coalition members were reluctant to report on their high death rate — approximately one death per week this year.

While physical homeless memorials have sprung up across the country, there is not the matched mobilization to not just mourn but organize, as the saying goes.

Certainly, provincial coroners’ offices and municipal governments have for the most part ignored the tragic loss of life that has gone on for decades. Except for the British Columbia Coroners’ office and Toronto Public Health’s homeless death tracking system, attention to homeless deaths has come only after demands and protest for an inquest. Even then inquest recommendations are rarely, if ever, implemented. A jury recommendation from the 1986 Ontario inquest into the death of Drina Joubert, who froze to death in the back of a truck in downtown Toronto said: “The Coroner must keep statistics on all deaths that relate to homeless and unemployment.”

To this day that has not taken place.

Today SHJN demands that Toronto City Council must immediately strike a task force charged with taking all reasonable steps to reduce such deaths but also take measures to ensure safe shelter, an expansion of housing allowances, harm reduction measures and to stop encampment evictions.

Don Weitz, a long-time activist, regularly performed and updated his famous rant Nameless-Homeless at the Toronto Homeless Memorial. Here is an excerpt to honour his recent passing:

NAMELESS-HOMELESS (a revised rant-in-progress)

This rant is dedicated to the thousands of homeless and sexually assaulted women, trans people, missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada. By Don Weitz 

I see you I hear you

on george & gerrard

I see you I hear you

in and out of satan house

barred from the schoolhouse

another homeless shelter the city wants to shut down

save the schoolhouse-save the schoolhouse

where are the women’s shelters

safe havens for thousands of women

courageous survivors of sexist and racist assault

survivors of unspeakable

homelessness, poverty and rape

I see you I hear you

women, alone and lonely

beaten, assaulted in dark alleyways

at sherbourne and dundas, downtown east,

all over this fucking stolen land

in calgary, regina, winnipeg, halifax, toronto, vancouver

where 1000 aboriginal sisters are

still missing or dead from

the genocidal colonialism

of don’t-give-a-shit stephen harper

and the sexist-and-racist canadian state

where are the safe women’s shelters

the 24/7 crisis centres

damn all city councils  …

i see you I hear you

in Hamilton home of big steel

i see you I hear you in Ottawa

bastion of bigotry, hypocrisy, official lies

i see you I hear you in Sudbury

where union brothers and sisters reach out to us

i see you I hear

in winnipeg where First Nations brothers

are arrested-and-jailed-shot at

for drinking, driving, marching

with dreams and visions of a First Nations general strike

I hear you I see you in

alberta where polluted tar sands

threaten your land, health and lives

i see you i hear you

in churchill

freezing your ass off at 40 below

i see you I hear you in

vancouver’s downtown east side

 

Rest in power to all.

Editor’s note, Dec. 16, 2021: A previous headline read “Thirty-four people died homeless this month in Toronto: a call to action.” In fact, 34 names were added to the Toronto homeless memorial which is updated monthly. The people may have died between late October through mid-December. The headline has been updated to reflect this.

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues. Her work has included taking the pulse of health issues affecting homeless people...