Two men. Aged 40 and 51. 

Both Indigenous. Both died last month. Both died far too soon.

But that’s the grim reality for homeless men living on the streets of Toronto where, according to a study released in 2000, the average age at death was 46.

A death rate up to eight times higher than housed men. Who develop diseases usually associated with old age.

In Toronto, Indigenous peoples account for 25 per cent of the homeless population yet make up only 2 per cent of the city’s total population, according to a 1997 report.

Life for homeless people is harsh, not just for those who sleep on the streets but also for the ones sleeping in homeless shelters. Unbelievably stressful. And it’s killing people. Almost 30 years before the average person.

All because they don’t have a permanent place to call home. And the federal government isn’t doing much about it.

In the last year’s federal budget, the federal government announced $253 million for new affordable housing.

“And they said all the provinces and territories would match that,” said Michael Shapcott, Director, Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute, an independent, non-profit research and policy dedicated to advancing urban health. 

“That would be half a billion dollars annually over five years. Which wouldn’t have solved the problem but it would have made a heck of a difference.”

A year later, said Shapcott, “Not a penny of that money has been allocated. Not a single agreement has been signed between the federal and provincial governments to allocate a single penny of that money. And I’m pretty confident that this afternoon (when the federal government delivers its budget) will have that same announcement once again.”

A good announcement with no follow-through. 

“But of course what we really want is the money and the housing,” said Shapcott.

To reduce the number of names being added to the homeless memorial board outside the Church of the Holy Trinity, where on the second Tuesday of every month a vigil is held to remember those who’ve died the previous month.

“We know that we need about $2 billion annually in order to ensure good, safe affordable housing for everyone across Canada. Not simply to make promises but deliver on them too.”

The same way that Art Manuel delivered for the homeless community in Toronto and across the country for over two decades.

In the late 1990’s, Manuel lead the way in developing the world’s first safe drinking site for homeless alcoholic men in the Seaton House Annex.

He also pushed for Canada’s first multi-disciplinary health care team for chronically homeless men and the first shelter-based palliative care program.

In December, Manuel died of cancer at the age of 51.

“To honour Manuel’s pioneering work and continue his legacy, family, friends and colleagues are raising money in his memory to fund the city’s first long-term supportive housing with a managed alcohol program for chronically homeless men with mental illness and other health problems related to drinking,” said the Toronto Star in a story published on January 21.

Charitable donations can be made to Regeneration Community Services (Toronto Ontario).

To learn more about the project and Manuel’s life, go to www.artmanuel.ca.

“He actually brought socks from his home for guys,” said Brian Dubourdieu, who was homeless for over two decades and knew Manuel for 25 years.

“This is long before all the hostels and street nurses had socks for the guys.”

Even though little has been done to build new affordable housing in the city, homeless advocates were able to pressure city council to open up a warming centre for the first time in over a decade.

“It’s sleeping 80 to 100 men and women every single night,” said Cathy Crowe.

“But only on mats. And there aren’t enough mats. No cots. And no meals are provided at this 24-hour warming centre.”

But the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church on College Street west, brings in a dinner every night.

“It’s awesome what they’re doing,” said Crowe.

So is what the Ryerson School of Image Arts and Ryerson Image Centre are doing.

Every night from February 5 to March 5, tweets about homelessness will change the colour of the LED façade of the Ryerson School of Image Arts and Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto from blue to red.

“Blue animations on the building will be controlled by the speed and direction of the wind and red pulses will be triggered by fluctuations in the use of the hashtag #homelessness on Twitter,” said the authors on their website. 

A Reactive Architecture Installation was created by Patricio Davila and Dave Colangelo. Design and programming were coordinated by Maggie Chan and Robert Tu.

“it’s quiet awesome to see it,” said Crowe. “And it’s a real credit to Ryerson Image Arts students that are doing this work.

To learn more, visit intheairtonight.org or @itat2014 to read and retweet messages about #homelessness or compose your own.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.