Photo of a sign which reads "Housing Now"
Frame of a roof with a white sign that has 'Housing Now' painted in black. Credit: Cathy Crowe / Cathy Crowe Credit: Cathy Crowe / Cathy Crowe

“As a very wealthy country, with significant surplus in the federal budget, immediate attention is required for the most vulnerable part of the population living in inadequate housing and living conditions. There is no justification for not massively engaging in the improvement of the situation of all those that face inadequate housing and living conditions throughout Canada.”

Miloon Kothari, former United Nations Rapporteur on adequate housing (2000-08), made this statement in March 2008 after his mission to Canada to examine homelessness and the housing crisis.

Imagine that.

Homelessness was so bad in one of the richest countries in the world that it attracted the attention of the United Nations. Kothari’s mandate included examining women’s homelessness, Indigenous homelessness, and the impact of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics on homeless people. Of note, ten years earlier the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee had declared homelessness a national disaster and mayors and their city councils across the country were vocal in their appeal for federal aid.

While the federal government responded to the 1998 disaster campaign by launching a new federal homelessness program, subsequent federal governments did not “massively engage” on the housing issue. Thus, the importance of Mr. Kothari’s visit.

Homelessness grew. The affordable housing crisis intensified. People continue to suffer and die while remaining homeless. More than a thousand people have died homeless in Toronto alone. Other cities including Calgary, Edmonton, London, Hamilton, and Halifax now have homeless memorials.

Two years ago, the pandemic arrived creating a perfect storm — a tsunami of homelessness — made visible in the form of encampments across the country; people trying to stay warm by riding on local transit or people unable to obtain a shelter bed living in bus shelters. In the last week, three homeless people have frozen to death in Toronto. The pandemic exacerbated people’s housing vulnerability. Those who were precariously housed were pushed over the edge; the result of economic evictions, renovictions and the cancelled Canada Emergency Response Benefit that would have allowed people to keep their housing.

Enough is enough

Mid-January this year, Leilani Farha, Global Director of The Shift and former UN Rapporteur on adequate housing (2014-20), wrote to federal ministers Jean-Yves Duclos (Health) and Ahmed Hussen (Housing) to warn them that reports on the ground from some of Canada’s major cities suggests homeless “conditions are of national concern and relevance.”

Farha cautioned:

“The federal government and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation must be centrally involved in addressing these country-wide challenges on an urgent and priority basis. Your leadership and your capacity to act as brokers with different levels of government and diverse stakeholders and drive urgent and novel solutions, are desperately needed.”

Also in January, the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) held a media conference warning that Toronto’s shelter system had collapsed. They cited a long list of endangerments including: overcrowded and unsafe shelters; unequal provision of N95 or KN95 masks (they were provided to staff not shelter residents); the city’s practice of isolating COVID-19 positive people “in situ” (leaving them in shelters with uninfected people); COVID-19 outbreaks in 50 shelters; and an escalating death rate among shelter residents (132 people died in Toronto shelters in 2021 compared to 74 in 2020).

Ignored by Toronto’s mayor, City Council and city managers, SHJN and Maggie’s Toronto appealed to the United Nations, the Ontario Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders for humanitarian aid to protect unhoused people in Canada’s largest city. While we wait for a response, multiple organizations are now involved in a humanitarian drive for tents, winter sleeping bags, tarps, boots and more.

Civil society leaders Alan Broadbent and Elizabeth McIsaac of Maytree, a prominent foundation that focuses on poverty and economic and social rights, also voiced their alarm in a column We have plans for snow, why not for people who are homeless? They compared the obvious — winter comes every year and we know what to do — to the social issue of chronic lack of housing. They point out that we have decades of knowledge and solutions to homelessness that we should employ:

Using public lands to build permanently affordable housing, providing rent relief, and banning evictions during a pandemic, funding and operating supportive housing, increasing access to mental health and addiction services, increasing income supports, regulating rooming houses, using inclusionary zoning, designing emergency shelters that offer people privacy and dignity … the list is long. We have ways; we lack the will to use them.”

Of course, it’s the political will that is sorely lacking. I’m reminded of the words of a 7-year old on that subject. While making the documentary film series Home Safe with filmmaker Laura Sky, this exchange happened with the 7-year old:

“‘If you were the mayor, how would you help families that need a home?’

7-year old: ‘I would help them by telling the people that work for me to build one big house with all the rooms that we need so everyone could stay warm and healthy.'”

This child’s simple words are a reminder of the power and responsibility that politicians, including mayors hold.

But they must have a moral compass.

Homelessness: no longer Toronto’s dirty little secret

A few years ago, pre-COVID-19, over 50,000 people signed a petition to Toronto mayor John Tory asking him to declare a homelessness emergency. Both the mayor and city council refused. Since then, numerous community demands including a call for more shelter beds, improvements to shelter conditions, a revamp of Toronto’s archaic warming and cooling centre protocols, and a better harm reduction response have gone unheeded.

I used to call homelessness Toronto’s dirty little secret. There were so many atrocities and violations of human rights not visible to the average person. No longer.

The mayor’s insistence that the extremely visible encampments were unsafe, and the resulting violent police evictions made national news. Government’s violence towards homeless people can be policy neglect but it can also be actual violence.

Toronto remains the epicentre of the homelessness disaster for all to know.

Toronto’s mayor and city council should be leading the country’s fight for a fully funded national housing program and in particular due to the pandemic, a rapid re-housing effort to move people from shelters to housing.

Toronto’s municipal government, both politicians and bureaucrats, are missing the passion, the strategic drive and the will to fight for housing money as hard as they fight for money for transit or the waterfront.

The mayor and city council’s moral compass are broken.

Excerpt from Homelessness Emergency. (Lyrics below. You can listen to entire song here.) by Toronto-based reggae fusion artist Paul Salvatori.

People are dying
Tired of crying

Homeless emergency
What’s the story John Tory
Call the emergency

We the north
Gotta house the north
And we ain’t no champions
Til everyone up north
Has got a place to say
A safe home of their own
No more dead bodies
Sad the 6 is a disaster zone

Homeless emergency
What’s the story John Tory
I know you see what I see
Homeless emergency
What’s the story John Tory
Call the emergency

Homeless Emergency lyrics courtesy of Paul Salvatori.