A group of people march behind the Shelter & Housing Justice Network banner in the snow. (Image: Paul Salvatori/Used with permission)
A group of people march behind the Shelter & Housing Justice Network banner in the snow. (Image: Paul Salvatori/Used with permission)

Many years ago, I asked filmmaker Michael Connolly to help me make a video with Nancy Baker, a long-time homeless advocate and resident at Toronto’s Tent City. I wanted to show it to Claudette Bradshaw, then federal minister responsible for homelessness, at a “homelessness consultation” meeting in her Gatineau office (note: no homeless people were invited). In the video Nancy pleaded, “Please help us, in this disaster where we are at.” Nancy knew that too many people were dying. She wanted housing as the solution for everyone who needed it.

Toronto has been hosting a monthly homeless memorial for over twenty years. While we used to tragically add between one and five names of unhoused people, the numbers are now routinely in the double digits. The October memorial saw 15 names of people added. It’s like a slaughter.

This month advocates held a media conference directly in front of the actual Homeless Memorial in downtown Toronto beside the Eaton Centre. Jennifer Jewell, a former encampment resident who is now staying in a hotel-shelter repeated Nancy’s plea: “Please help us….we need housing now, people need to be provided safe spaces to heal, they need homes.”

For decades our politicians and bureaucrats at every level of government have failed and their neoliberal policies have been called social murder.

I’ve always called Toronto the epicentre of the homeless disaster in the country and governments’ failure is most evident here particularly at this time of year as we approach winter.

For years, Toronto’s shelter division has put forward an inadequate winter plan for people. The city repeatedly scrambles to add unplanned spaces because of this poor planning. To avoid the repeated planning failure, Toronto’s Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) held a media conference to release its evidence based winter and spring plan to be fully implemented. (Full disclosure I contributed to the plan and am a volunteer advisor to the SHJN Steering Committee)

The ground-breaking Emergency Winter and Shelter Support and Infrastructure Plan chronicles years of Toronto’s failure to create adequate winter plans and warming centres. It particularly notes the 2017 winter campaign for more shelter beds when Mayor John Tory infamously and, some would say, stubbornly refused to open the armoury for shelter. It was ultimately opened in January 2018 thanks to the advocacy of frontline workers, high profile advocates like Sarah Polley and the general public.

The plan recognizes the equity issues inherent in Toronto’s shelter system including: the fact that Indigenous people account for 2.5 per cent of Toronto’s population but make up 16 per cent of the unhoused population; the deeply racialized nature of homelessness (63 per cent all unhoused people are Black, Indigenous or people of colour); unhoused youth who are disproportionately 2SLGBTQ (24 per cent identify as 2SLGBT); disabled people who, making up 23 per cent of the unhoused population in Toronto, are overrepresented; refugees who are also disproportionately unhoused in Toronto; and, the gender-based violence which is both a cause of homelessness and a threat while homeless for women.

SHJN’s report makes a flawless case that “City of Toronto policies and practices, through action or omission, negatively and disproportionately impact specific human rights protected groups.”

The American-based policy called Housing First (which I frequently criticize) imported into Canada as policy in the early 2000s, perhaps best exemplifies decades of government failure across the country. Specifically, the SHJN plan notes:

“Housing First is a failed policy in Toronto. Housing First requires that people be unhoused for six months before getting access to many supports – in the midst of a housing crisis, this is an inhumane policy.”

The winter plan key demands include the following and their substance is relevant for all municipalities across the country:

  1. Immediately incorporate 2,250 permanent, non-congregate shelter beds into the system. (Note: the operative word here is non-congregate)
  2. Repeal the “no camping” bylaw.
  3. Extend shelter-hotel leases.
  4. Increase the target of newly attributed housing allowances in 2021 from 1,440 to 3,000.
  5. Freeze all evictions with the emergency powers of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
  6. Issue an inclement weather alert when necessary and open inclement weather sites during alerts.
  7. Implement COVID-19 indoor air quality safety measures.

Several sections in the report are ground-breaking.

First, the section on COVID prevention in shelters includes recommendations for on-site testing, provision of N95 and KN95 masks for shelter residents and staff. The recommendations on COVID-19 indoor air quality safety measures will make you wonder why you never hear local medical officers of health speak of or implement them.

Second, the plan re-imagines what an evidence-based, northern climate winter plan should include. In the section on “Cold Alerts, Inclement Weather and Warming Centres” it recommends the city:

  1. Issue an inclement weather alert when Environment Canada forecasts:
    1. Cold: A temperature of -5°C or colder, or a temperature above -5°C with a windchill -10°C or below.
    2. Freezing rain: When freezing rain is expected to pose a hazard to transportation or property or when freezing rain is expected for at least two hours.
    3. Snowfall: When 15 cm or more of snow falls within 12 hours or less.
    4. Rainfall in winter: When 25 mm or more of rain is expected within 24 hours.

Third, the plan calls out Toronto’s irresponsible reliance on the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness as the voice of this sector. It recommends to the city:

  1. Discontinue using the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness (TAEH) as a primary consulting group. Unhoused people, including encampment residents and shelter residents, are the experts in homelessness, life in the shelters, and their needs. They should be the primary advisors about what they need.

The TAEH’s members are largely supportive housing providers and partners with governments, businesses and landlords. These groups’ interests are different than, and often oppositional to, unhoused people.

  1. Do not provide the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness with funds. This includes not having the TAEH perform paid services with/for the City. It is a strong conflict of interest for a group to both consult with and receive funds from the City.

Finally, the plan tackles housing challenging the myths that Toronto’s policies including vacant home tax, inclusionary zoning and housing allowances are anywhere near adequate.

In my experience most reports and research on homelessness and housing end up just sitting on shelves. Undoubtedly, that will not be the case with this one! As the plan itself states:

“If all of these demands are not met, the community will organize and agitate until the basic needs of unhoused people are met.”

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...