OCAP action on February 12 at Toronto City Hall. Photo: Errol Young

Toronto City Council has voted 34-8 in favour of a motion to make available the funds to add 1,000 new shelter beds in 2018.

The significant development came late on February 12; it is one that homeless people and their allies spent months fighting for. Leading up to the vote, Mayor John Tory backed a proposal to add a maximum of 361 new beds this year, less than a quarter of the 1,500 that are necessary to guarantee a bed for everyone in need.

That morning, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) led a demonstration that interrupted the budget meeting to deliver a key message: the failure to add at least 1,000 beds this year would guarantee that hundreds of homeless people, including the majority of those currently staying in overcrowded respite sites on mats and cots, would still not have a shelter bed at the year’s end.

It would ensure that the present trend of two homeless people dying every week would continue. People chanted, “Hey, John Tory, add a thousand beds, or you’ll be sorry!” which was as much a plea for human decency as a warning of a fiery struggle to follow.

At the end of the day, the mayor voted in favour of a motion by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to “make all reasonable efforts to expedite the expansion of permanent shelter beds by 1,000 in 2018.”

The move was in keeping with the position reversals Tory has been forced to make in recent months. Amid ongoing mobilizations by homeless people and their allies, the cold temperatures, and the escalating housing crisis, public outrage about the city’s complicity in creating homelessness has been growing. The mayor and his administration have been forced to justify their reluctance to provide basic shelter from the elements to people, a task they have found increasingly difficult.

Nevertheless, the victory secured at the budget meeting is incomplete. The motion that passed doesn’t commit the city to adding 1,000 beds this year. This means the focus must now shift to pushing the City to follow through. Furthermore, given that new shelters won’t open until later in the year, over 700 people will continue to stay in the sub-standard respite centres, where conditions are dreadful and must be improved.

The struggle for shelters, and beyond that, for housing that poor people can afford, is far from over, but the past few months are a testament to the power and necessity of fighting back.

Yogi Acharya is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

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