"Please sir, I want some more."
"Please sir, will you open the doors?"
This is the plea for shelter, one of the most basic of human needs.
For the second winter in a row Toronto shelter workers, street nurses, leaders in the faith community and let's not forget, homeless people have been begging, like the young boy in Oliver, for the city to open more emergency shelters and specifically the Fort York and Moss Park armouries.
18,200 people have signed a petition calling on Mayor John Tory to open the armouries.
Why the armouries? Because in a shelter emergency, they can be opened within days.
However, a public relations strategy by the Mayor's office and the city's senior shelter management bureaucrats has attempted to undermine this campaign. They argue the armouries are "not suitable."
Yet the armouries are suitable for all types of military functions and reservists training. Ontario Coalition Against Poverty activist Gaetan Heroux, author of Toronto's Poor: A Rebellious History (with Bryan Palmer) has concisely reminded us in a Toronto Star opinion piece that the armouries were indeed suitable and opened four times in the past from 1996 to 2004 by then Toronto mayors Barbara Hall, Mel Lastman and David Miller.
I remember each time those armouries opened and they filled nightly with approximately 150 homeless people. I never heard complaints. People liked the spacious environment, the safety, the assurance they would get a cot, the warmth, the adequacy of washrooms and showers, the food and health care brought in.
Recently, homeless people have only had crumbs thrown at them as if they were pests. Last winter, a community centre used as an overnight warming centre scandalously kept its doors locked all night. The other two 24-hour warming centres had no cots or beds, not enough washrooms or showers, and were so full they had to turn people away. This winter, the city added a couple more overnight drop-ins to the mix, but with no improvement in the conditions there. Two nights ago there were 310 people sleeping in these centres, centres that would not quality as shelter for you or I if we faced a major power outage in the city. I described this inequity in a previous rabble blog entitled "A Tale of Two Warming Centres," another play on Charles Dickens.
I can only describe the situation today in Dickensian terms.
Shelters are overcrowded and unhealthy. The recent 18-month long Strep A outbreak is a direct result. Toronto is the canary in the coal mine. A similar outbreak in London, Ontario is now reported to have killed nine people. Strep A outbreaks have also erupted in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.
Overcrowding is exacerbated when the city proudly announces they have added more "beds" to existing shelters. In Canada's largest men's shelter, Seaton House, a common area now overflows with 30 cots for men. Imagine the air quality, the tension.
Numerous Toronto daytime drop-ins are now de facto shelters at night where people, sometimes as old as 80 or recovering from surgery, slowly bend down to lie on mats on the floor or put their name into a lottery for a recliner chair.
Families with children, unable to get into the 100 per cent full family shelter system, are now showing up at adult only drop-ins or finding a Tim Hortons to sleep in.
The streets are mean and cold and full of people. An Ottawa street nurse, visiting Toronto last week, wrote me to ask: "what has happened?" She saw people everywhere on sidewalks, in bus shelters, in very poor shape.
Can Toronto wait for the federal government's National Housing Strategy? No.
I calculated that if the death rate continues at approximately two per week, we would have added another 244 names to the Toronto Homeless Memorial before the newly touted Canada Housing Benefit begins in 2020.
Mayor John Tory, make the phone call to the Minister of Defence Harjit Singh Sajjan. Here's his number: 613-996-3100.
Open the armouries.
Photo: Cathy Crowe
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