November 25.

A year since the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) began its campaign for 24-hour women and trans drop-in spaces after a homeless woman was sexually assaulted twice in one night near Dundas and Sherbourne in Toronto’s DTES.

Months after Toronto City Council agreed to move forward with a plan to establish 24-hour drop-ins this year, then later mothballed the project until 2015. 

“At a time when shelters, especially women and family shelters, operate at nearly 100 per cent capacity every night and turn people away with nowhere to go,” said OCAP in its October 20 release.

“The number of people in shelters is exploding. As we head into colder weather, we are faced once again with the reality of shelters being over-capacity, and with the lack of safe space at night.”

At the same time, close to 90,000 households remain on the affordable housing wait list. 

Click here to see more photos from the rally and march.

“Private market rents skyrocket and overall vacancies are at 1.7 per cent,” said OCAP. 

“As we face the ‘manhattanization’ of Toronto poor people are left to scramble for a place to live and are denied even the basic dignity of a place to sleep at night. This is about people’s lives! We are tired of the game of words and lack of action while assaults continue on the streets against homeless women and lives are put at risk.”

For that reason, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, OCAP and its supporters gathered for a rally and action in the north end of George Hislop Park.

Although the official start of winter was less than a month away, Tuesday morning was a cruel reminder of what we can expect for the next four months. At noon, it was overcast and only felt like -3C.  But things will become much more unpleasant, especially for those forced to sleep on the streets during December, January and February as temperatures plunge and snowstorms rage across the city. 

With life-threatening consequences for some.

“On any given night, people are turned away from City of Toronto shelters due to overcrowding,” said OCAP in its November 25 release. “This absence of shelter space hits women and trans people especially hard. Massively overcrowded shelters dump women and trans homeless people on the streets and place them at particular risk.”

The wind rushed through George Hislop Park as activists prepared for the march. They held signs and banners that read: “NO MORE HOMELESS DEATHS,” “STOP THE VIOLENCE – SAFE SPACE NOW” and “SUBWAY VENT IS NOT A HOME. WE NEED SHELTER BEDS AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING NOW.”

“Earlier this year, OCAP and its allies pressed the City to open a 24 hour safe space drop-in,” said OCAP. 

“After a campaign of community mobilization, the City relented and acknowledged the obvious need that such a space would meet, promising that a women and trans folk’s space would open before the start of the winter. But after endless committee meetings and other stalling tactics, it seems that the City has forgotten its promise.”

At 12:40 pm, four women carrying a banner that read “24 HOUR DROP INS FOR WOMEN AND TRANS PEOPLE NOW!” led several hundred people up the two northbound lanes of Yonge Street, chanting “Safe Space Now.”

Led several hundred people past numerous luxury condominiums before arriving at 21 Park Road, a converted heritage home owned by the City of Toronto one block east of Yonge off of Bloor Street, shortly after 1 pm, where OCAP had taken over a building that the City utilizes as part of its Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA).

Five OCAP members occupied the building, demanding action on shelter occupancy and that the City fulfill its stated promise to open a 24 hour women and trans people’s drop-in.

“You’ve now taken over something,” said OCAP member Chanteal-Lee Winchester, gripping a megaphone.

“Congrats. If they will not make it, we will take it.”

OCAP had hung a banner out one of the windows of the gable roof at the front of the building that read “WE DEMAND SHELTER AND SAFETY.” Police immediately sealed off both entrances to the two-storey building as activists streamed into the parkette next to the building.

“Safe space now,” they chanted.

Wearing rapturous smiles, the five women appeared at the window on the first floor inside the building with their fists raised high in the air. Almost three dozen signs were taped to the wall beside the window remembering women over the years who’d died on the streets due to inadequate shelter.

“I’ve been on the streets myself for a couple of years,” said one activist, who invited mayor-elect John Tory to join her and others on the streets to experience what it feels like.

Sleeping rough. Spending much of the day planning where to sleep that night. Fingers crossed you aren’t assaulted or robbed.

“We won safe space,” said Judy, an outreach worker in the DTES. “So I don’t know why the hell we’re still here.”

Every night, Judy sees her friends sleeping on the streets, sleeping on grates.

“Nobody deserves that,” she said. “It’s disgusting. Three or four times, on an average night, a woman is assaulted. No woman deserves that. They need a safe space. With proper beds for these women to sleep in.”

From the time she was 14 until approximately 10 years ago, Judy lived on the streets. 

“It’s not safe and it’s not easy,” said Judy. “Women do things like sell their bodies to get a roof over their heads for the night.”

Risking their lives for what the rest of us take for granted. A safe space.

“How many more women have to die?” she asked. 

One of the activists in the parkette contacted Zoe Dodd, one of the five women inside the building, via cell phone. Dodd told the crowd that the group had called city manager Joe Pennachetti and that they wouldn’t leave the building until he returned their call.

“In my early 20’s I was street involved; I was raped several times,” said Dodd, as a cellphone was held up to the microphone. 

“Because I didn’t have a safe space to go and money to pay for the resources to get counselling. And too many women on our streets face this every day. And it’s just too much.”

Women know that having a home, having an income and not having to be forced on the streets keeps people safer.

“And so that’s why we’re here,” she said. “So if the city wants to do something, they can do something today and we can get back to the 90 per cent occupancy rate. So people cannot get turned away.”

The main reason that occupancy rates are close to 100 per cent is because more and more families cannot afford to house themselves.

“When you have families that can’t afford to house themselves, they end up going into the shelter system,” said Chanteal-Lee Winchester. 

“And if you have a shelter system that refuses to open up space for women or families then you have people who are now sleeping on the streets.”

“Wondering where you’re going to go day by day, night by night,” said Flo-Jo, a harm reduction worker at South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

“Open your eyes and look about. There’s a lot of men, women, transgendered and sex workers that are struggling every day to keep their lives above average. We go to a shelter to be safe, but when we get there, there’s no beds. We’re turned away. Forced to go to the streets. And do what we have to do to survive.”

Around 2:15 pm, the five women were arrested, charged with mischief and trespass and later released.

John Bonnar

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