Protest signs at 21 Park Rd, location of Toronto's new winter respite program. Image: Cathy Crowe

Bandaids don’t fix a sub-standard shelter system.

In 2003, the Toronto Disaster Relief (TDRC), in response to persistent reports of unhealthy shelter conditions, formed a Shelter Inspection Team. The intent was to inspect hostels, hear from homeless people and front line workers, issue a report, and make recommendations.

The Shelter Inspection Team included physicians, nurses, a former United Nations refugee camp worker and a community activist who had been homeless. The team formally requested permission from the City of Toronto to perform their inspections. When there was no reply, the team went ahead and held hearings in drop-in centres where the experts, homeless people themselves, could give their testimony. Homeless people were then trained to assist and perform inspections using a shelter inspection checklist. They used practical measures. For example, to measure the space between beds/mats they used rope, which was less intrusive than a measuring tape. They counted working toilets and showers, examined privacy and safety, air circulation, whether bedding was provided, etc.

The background to this unusual community-based activist research included the following: tuberculosis outbreaks (2001), Norwalk virus outbreaks (2002), bedbug infestations (2002), clusters of homeless deaths (1996), the addition of the 300th name to the Homeless Memorial (2003), new city bylaws prohibiting new shelters in two downtown wards (2003), unfair barrings of people from shelter without recourse to appeal, and a shelter capacity beyond 90 per cent (1999).

In addition, for years city councillors and mayors had ignored community members’ advocacy measures, including their deputations and briefings. In a desperate measure, TDRC members took Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sheela Basrur and Phil Brown, the city’s manager of shelters, directly to locations to show them firsthand the violations and the risk to life. Nothing changed, so TDRC members were then forced to resort to even more extreme measures. With the help of experienced documentary filmmakers, they secretly filmed shelter conditions in basement shelters that violated the fire code let alone human dignity. The footage was shown at a city council meeting and to the public via national media.

The Shelter Inspection Report exposed in graphic detail the ways in which the city was not meeting its own Shelter Standards, let alone the United Nations Standards for Refugee Camps. In the words of the experts:

“I feel like the conditions in shelters are substandard, there are health risks, some are dirty; washrooms are not working. Bedding should be washed every night. I’ve gotten bitten by whatever creatures are crawling around in there.”

“The kitchen hasn’t been fixed in a month. I’m lactose intolerant and most of the food contains dairy. I’m not eating well. I’ve lost over 15 pounds in two weeks.”

“Overcrowding – – it’s been my experience that the overcrowding isn’t only when there is a cold weather alert – – it’s constant. The mats are right next to each other.”

It is important to note that at the time the Shelter Inspection Team was writing its report the city was in the grips of SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This was a frightening reminder that if an unknown infectious agent were to be introduced into the shelter system it would be next to impossible to contain it given the current conditions.

17 recommendations were made to ameliorate inhumane conditions and to prevent a health catastrophe.

For the most part, the city didn’t listen. They didn’t act.

Fast forward to 2017. Despite 14 more years of press conferences, deputations and further research, the city continues what I can only call intentional neglect.

The City of Toronto continues to allow its shelters to operate beyond 90 per cent capacity. Shelters remain strained, underfunded and without adequate resources.

The City relies on bandaids for very deep wounds.

Bandaid number one. The city absconds from its responsibility to provide shelter. It continues to rely on volunteerism to provide essential human services. The 2017-18 winter marks the 31st year for Toronto’s volunteer based Out of the Cold Program, which operates emergency shelter in church and synagogue basements and halls. Each site is open one night per week, only in the winter, necessitating a forced migration for hundreds. Last winter, this program reported having to turn people away for the first time. To make matters worse, city shelter standards do not apply. There are not even standard cleaning protocols, or health and safety protocols for dedicated volunteers.

Bandaid number two. The city absconds from its responsibility towards homeless women. In 2015, women’s activism including a protest outside a city shelter administration office in Rosedale, forced the city to accept there were unacceptably high levels of violence and sexual assault towards homeless women. The city’s response was to allow the use of two community sites (Fred Victor and Sistering) as overnight drop-ins (or extended hour drop-ins) but in reality these sites were turned into de facto overnight shelters. While this was an important emergency measure, two years later women, if lucky, women get to sleep in a recliner chair in a drop-in. Imagine your grandmother there.

Bandaid number three. The city absconds from protecting vulnerable people during inclimate weather. In 2016, the city actually tried to operate cooling centres without staff, snacks or water during heat alerts. They were stopped in their tracks by activists and public outrage. The city’s operation of warming centres, over the years renamed as overnight drop-ins and renamed last week as ‘respite centres’ remains chaotic at best. Last year, one of the warming centres kept its doors locked from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.

As John Clarke has noted,

“Winter respite is one of those spin doctored terms used to conceal an inconvenient reality. It evokes images of warming up in front of a blazing log fire with a nice up of hot chocolate. What is actually happening is that the homeless shelter system has been overwhelmed and City Hall hopes to avoid the political embarrassment of freezing deaths in the winter by operating a sub standard back up system that robs people of their health and dignity.”

The solution? It is succinctly said by Rafi Aaron, spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness: “The answer lies in the creation of more permanent shelters with support services and a major increase in low income and affordable housing options.”

Image: Cathy Crowe

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