Screen shot of the vote by Toronto City Council to not ask the Ministry of Defence for the armouries. Image: Cathy Crowe

This is an updated blog to one I wrote last December, ‘Open the federal armouries for shelter.’ At that time, others and myself were calling for Toronto’s Mayor John Tory to open the armouries for emergency shelter. Since then, over 30 organizations in Toronto, including Social Planning Toronto, have called on Mayor Tory to open the armouries. Numerous press conferences were held, including two by the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness. And a petition I started grew from hundreds to over 25,000. It has been delivered to the Mayor’s office and was read into December’s city council proceedings. It is still growing.

Since the petition was launched, at least 80 people have died homeless in Toronto.

Winter always brings a heightened sense of urgency for Toronto’s homeless, yet few useful solutions. Last year, the city ignored our call to open the armouries and instead opened three warming centres. One centre only operated from 9 p.m. to morning and kept its doors locked all night. It was a scandal.

All year long, the evidence that we need more emergency shelters has never been stronger. This winter is no different, I would say it’s worse than anything I’ve seen in 30 years: disastrous conditions, disease, and death.

While we wait, seemingly forever, for a national housing program to be announced, homelessness has only worsened. (Author’s note: even after a national housing strategy has been announced, we still await the roll out of the program and money.)

Across Canada, people have been abandoned outside. In Toronto, hundreds, maybe a thousand people are forced to live outside in parks, ravines, under bridges, and on city sidewalks. The situation meets the World Health Organization definition of a humanitarian disaster. The death toll grows monthly at the Toronto Homeless Memorial.

In Toronto, one immediate relief measure has always been only a phone call away.

Mayor John Tory could request Harjit Sajjan, the Minister of National Defence, to allow the city to use one or both of the federal armouries for an emergency shelter. Former Toronto mayors Barbara Hall, Mel Lastman, and David Miller did exactly that during their terms of office and the Fort York and Moss Park armouries were opened a total of four times, sheltering hundreds and undoubtedly saving countless lives. Other Canadian mayors could take similar action.

On December 6, I learned through my MP Adam Vaughan that the federal Ministry of Defence was willing to offer the armouries to the city for emergency homeless shelter, and I received that promise in writing. All the city had to do was ask.

In a shocking backstab to homeless people, frontline workers and advocates, Toronto City Council, including Mayor tory, voted no to Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion to make that phone call. Instead, Council backed the Mayor’s proposal to cram 400 more people into shelters, already beyond capacity.

The Mayor and his media spinners outlined the expertise of public servants and community experts who cite the inadequacies of the armouries. In fact, no community experts have come forward to support the Mayor’s claims and none of the bureaucrats consulted were even around at previous armoury openings to know how well they worked. And yes, the armouries do have toilets and showers.

In an angry CBC interview, Mayor Tory asked, in a clear reference to myself and faith activist Rafi Aaron, “Why is it that when it comes to opening the armouries and when it comes to how we solve the problems these one or two people are to be taken as having the gospel of how to do this?” Mayor Tory seemingly doesn’t appreciate that the public petition to open the armoury is now approaching 30,000 people.

The city has never modernized shelters, and still shelters people in dormitory style rooms, relying on bunk beds to sleep more people in tight spaces. There is not even a best practice policy that recognizes new shelters should have a one person per room policy. During cold alerts, the city adds mats to already crowded shelters.

This overcrowding and underfunding equate to unhealthy shelter conditions which have only fuelled disease outbreaks, including tuberculosis and what is known as the “winter vomiting” Norwalk-type virus. The tuberculosis outbreak actually killed several men, leading to an inquest in 2004. Last year, Seaton House, the largest men’s shelter in Canada, suffered through a Group A Streptococcus outbreak that began in February, which lasted 18 months. The only metaphor to describe these conditions is “the canary in the mineshaft is screaming.”

The mission of the Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, according to their web page, is to contribute to healthy communities by ensuring that people have a range of shelter options.

One of the shelter options the city has relied on every winter for the last 31 winters is the volunteer run Out of the Cold (OOTC) program. Instead of creating needed new shelters, the city allowed the OOTC to function as an overflow and second tier shelter system.

Shockingly, it is second tier. This winter the OOTC program will provide 872 “bed nights” per week — but there are no beds. Instead, people are forced to sleep in large gymnasium type rooms, on mats. None of the facilities provide adequate shower or washroom facilities. This program doesn’t even have to meet the city’s own Toronto Shelter Standards, which include properly trained staff. Hundreds of people take part in a nightly migration to the next OOTC site, with no guarantee they will get in, and if they get in they still face poor conditions. No lessons learned from the SARS outbreak here as Toronto Public Health conveniently turns a blind eye to an environment that is a recipe for disease transmission. 31 years since the program’s inception, there are still no public health cleaning standards provided for Out of the Cold programs to adhere to.

This year activists forced the city, to increase the number of 24 — hour winter respite/warming from two to five drop — in centres. To date, only four have opened and between the OOTC program and these drop-ins close to 500 people are now sleeping on floors in inadequate conditions. That means that 10 per cent of the city’s homeless population are now sleeping in locations that are not shelters and do not meet the city’s own shelter standards.

The climate, and I don’t mean the weather, is harsh today if you’re homeless and in need of shelter. The other day I heard the Mayor ask if there was anything more Canadian than skating on outdoor ice? Perhaps he should ask: Is there anything more Torontonian than being able to sleep outside in the winter?

Image: Cathy Crowe

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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...