More than 100 people assembled in St. James Park on National Housing Day for a rally to highlight the need for a national housing strategy and bring attention to the growing homelessness problem in Toronto and across the country.

Between 150,000 and 300,000 people are homeless in Canada. Almost 142,000 households are on the waiting list for affordable housing in Ontario.

Canada is the only major industrialized country without a national housing program even though it has signed international treaties guaranteeing housing as a human right. One in nine Canadians will be homeless or face homelessness in their lifetime.

Last year, a group of people who had experienced homelessness filed a court case against the governments of Ontario and Canada alleging their human rights were violated.

“Canada is a very unhealthy nation,” said John Deacon, businessman and blogger on homeless, wearing a button that read “Tax Me, End Poverty.”

“The lineups at our food banks are longer. The waiting lists for affordable housing and extended care facilities are growing. But our governments are strangely silent on the subject.”

In fact, governments are adapting policies that are making matters worse.

The federal government would rather build bigger prisons than bring back a national housing strategy and the Ontario government has slowed it’s commitment to reduce poverty by 25 per cent over five years.

In Toronto, the municipal government is busy selling off part of its stock of social housing to clear up an estimated $350 million backlog in repairs. And panhandlers are increasingly criminalized for begging for change on street corners.

“Politically, we have made homelessness a crime,” said Deacon. “We are ticketing the wrong people.”

More than 15,000 tickets were issued to panhandlers last year compared to only 2,000 a decade earlier.

Thirteen years ago, Jack Layton took the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee’s (TDRC) declaration that homelessness was a national disaster to the big city mayors across Canada.

“And they agreed,” said Cathy Crowe, TDRC, at Tuesday’s rally. “When Canada once had a national housing program we spent 1 per cent of our budget on housing.”

But in 1993, the Liberals cancelled the program. A constitutional charter challenge was filed in 2010 to force the government to put money for affordable housing back in the budget.

When 140 homeless men and women were evicted from Toronto’s Tent City on the waterfront in 2002, housing activists won a battle to open up an emergency shelter at Woodgreen Community Centre the same day.

Last week, a meeting was held at St. James Cathedral with police, local city councillor Pam McConnell, Phil Brown, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration general manager and a number of street nurses.

“We were promised an emergency shelter to open,” said Crowe. “But now they’re not doing that. They’re saying there’s a lot of space in the shelter system that men and women can go to. And that’s not true.”

Many homeless men and women will be deeply affected if the Occupy Toronto camp is evicted from St. James Park.

The Downtown East Stop the Cuts Committee (part of the Toronto Stop the Cuts Campaign) is holding a rally for housing and public services on Saturday, November 26 at noon in Moss Park.

As a long-time income security and affordable housing advocate, Rene Adams has seen many people forced to choose between paying the rent or feeding their children.

The average bachelor apartment in Toronto rents for $800 a month yet a single person on welfare receives only $595 monthly.

Adams, a single mother with multiple disability issues, is one of the fortunate few. She was able to leave the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) after obtaining full-time employment earlier this year.

“This is a beginning for me,” said Adams. “And I intend to use this position to propel myself forward and set a good example for my children.”

Following the rally, the group marched to the Attorney General’s office at 130 King Street West to serve them with evidence that homelessness violates human rights.

Today’s rally in Toronto was endorsed by Voices from the Street, Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, TCH Tenants Speakers Bureau, Stop the Cuts Network, Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, Occupy Toronto, FORWARD, the Dream Team, Toronto CAS and the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

Similar rallies took place Tuesday in Vancouver, Regina, Winnipeg, St. John’s and Ottawa.

Click here to see more photos from Day 39 of Occupy Toronto and the National Housing Day rally and march.

John Bonnar

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