Front page of the 1996 Inquest Update. Heading says "Presiding coroner angrily demands: Don't use the H**** word any more!"

It took homeless activists’ vocal demands, a sit-in at Mayor Tory’s office, public outrage and media headlines to force the City of Toronto to open warming centres in January 2015. This after two men died in brutally frigid temperatures. These two deaths soon became part of a cluster, eerily reminiscent of the three 1996 freezing deaths in Toronto.

In November 2014 community front-line workers and advocates had warned city officials that their cold weather response was inadequate and people would die. We cautioned there was too much confusion and rigidity on the -15C and wind chill criteria for calling a cold alert, that warming centres triggered to open on an alert had inadequate resources such as cots and food, and furthermore that the city did a lousy outreach and communication job.

Then this happened.

Monday, January 5: Sergio, a man in his 60s, died in the back of a truck at a shipping yard in the west-end of Toronto. His death was attributed to the cold.

Tuesday, January 6: Marhum Shabbir Jaffer Alloo, a man in his 40s, was found at a bus shelter at Yonge and Dundas in downtown Toronto. He was only wearing a t-shirt, jeans and a hospital bracelet.

Environment Canada’s historical data for these two days shows -12 to -22 C temperatures taking into account wind chill.

Wednesday January 7: Mayor Tory directs City Manager to ensure the warming centre opens. A cold alert is called.

Thursday January 8: The cold alert is cancelled at noon but warming centres remain open. Then another death: Glen Abram died, not outside but inside at the City’s Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral centre.

Monday January 13: Grant Faulkner, a man in his 40s, died in a fire in a makeshift shelter in Scarborough.

The rest of the month cold alerts were called and cancelled repeatedly and chaotically. 

Many of us realized that this cluster of four homeless deaths exposed the tragedy of persistent government neglect and demonstrated the failure of a number of policies. 

These failures included: city shelters always running over their 90% shelter capacity goal, inadequate extreme weather protocols, the defunding of survival supplies (sleeping bags, blankets, hot food) to outreach agencies, limiting their work, the lack of adequate harm reduction programs and the persistent premise that the Streets to Homes program could magically house people in the absence of a national housing program.

In the summer of 2015, the Advocacy Centre for Tenants in Ontario (ACTO) hosted a meeting of people who work on the issue of homeless deaths. That included members of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, Sanctuary Toronto, and myself. For a year and a half we met, consulted other agencies and researched a number of areas including cold weather responses nationally and internationally.

We called for a Coroner’s Inquest into this cluster of cold weather deaths. At meetings with several coroners we highlighted the layers of issues but also the positive public policy work that had come out of previous inquests into homeless deaths. The coroners’ office seemed unaware of these. For example:

The 1986 Drina Joubert Inquest (Drina froze to death in the back of a truck) led to funding for the Hostel Outreach Program, Project 3,000 (3,000 new units of subsidized housing) and a provincial policy change that meant single people would be eligible for subsidized housing for the first time ever.

The 1996 “Freezing Deaths Inquest” (Eugene Upper, Irwin Anderson, Mirsalah-Aldin Kompani) led to the first managed alcohol program in a men’s shelter, enhanced funding for street outreach agencies, the use of the federal armouries for shelter, and revisions to the city’s shelter standards.

The 2004 “Tuberculosis Inquest” (Joseph Teigesser) led to provincial funding for enhanced tuberculosis therapy and improved prevention measures in shelters, such as better ventilation.

In each of these inquests, community groups played an important advocacy role both inside and outside of the courtroom. This ranged from daily community meals and regular media conferences outside the courtroom in the “Freezing Deaths Inquest” to community coalitions having official standing with their own lawyer who could provide witnesses, perform active cross examination and make recommendations to the jury.

At the “Freezing Deaths Inquest” an Inquest Update newsletter was faxed out across Canada and to the United States nightly. The newsletter, which today could be considered a blog, was famous for exposing that the coroner would not allow the “H” word (housing) to be said, that the police investigation was shoddy, and that witnesses were constantly reprimanded by the coroner and their evidence censored. 

In late 2016, the Coroner’s Office announced an inquest into the deaths of Grant Faulkner and Brad Chapman. The Chapman inquest was later separated and is scheduled for later this year. ACTO pulled together a coalition of community organizations and requested standing. They were rejected but allocated a lesser status — one where they were, in theory, permitted to make submissions, call witnesses, tender items for inclusion in the inquest brief etc. The City of Toronto obtained official standing. The Province of Ontario chose to not participate. 

The Faulkner inquest began June 11 and formal in court proceedings ended on June 15. The jury is now in deliberations. The limitations and restrictions became immediately apparent. Only 2 days were scheduled for evidence with restrictions on the number of witnesses. The official scope of the inquest excluded evidence on affordable housing such as supportive housing, shelter availability and conditions or the effectiveness of the cold weather alert system. 

The jury in the 1996 Freezing Deaths Inquest listed homelessness as one of the answers to the question, “By what means did the person die?”

They also disregarded the coroner’s ruling and made a recommendation on housing. I wonder what this jury will do.

More when the jury comes back.

Image: Toronto Disaster Relief Committee Archives, courtesy of Cathy Crow

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Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse (non-practising), 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...