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Toronto's shelter catastrophe was decades in the making

Inhumane emergency shelter conditions.

It was decades coming. A succession of Toronto mayors and city councils, city shelter bureaucrats and budgets that ignored the cumulative evidence, which included shelters bursting at the seams and always far beyond council's mandated 90% capacity.

They ignored the disease outbreaks (tuberculosis, Norwalk virus, Strep A), some of which killed people.

They ignored the death rate that is so high Toronto has held a monthly Homeless Memorial since 2000. 

They ignored their own evidence from the city's 2013 street count that 447 people were sleeping outside, although the number is widely accepted to be much higher.

They conveniently ignored that the 31 year old, volunteer run, faith based program Out of the Cold has been conveniently providing 800+ shelter spaces per week in the winter, for free, for hundreds of homeless people.

They ignored decades of front-line experts’ deputations, press conferences, research, photography, secret videos and the real experts: homeless people’s pleas for basic shelter. Until they couldn't any more.  

Some have described it as the perfect storm. The evidence began to make itself impossible to ignore.

Toronto's own Public Health Department, now officially tracking homeless deaths for the first time, has exposed the high rate of homeless deaths. The final death toll for 2017, to be announced at the end of January, will likely pass 80. To date, the average age at death for home people is only 48.

Deputations and call outs for more emergency shelter intensified in the last year with faith-based groups and social service agencies repeatedly speaking out. In more than one case there were back to-back press conferences by groups calling for more shelters.

People were shocked by stories of family shelters and adult drop-ins harbouring homeless families with kids in program rooms or offices because there were no shelter or city motel shelter rooms available.

The longtime reported complaints from workers of being on hold with the city’s intake line and unable to find shelter beds for clients were proven in secretly recorded phone calls by street pastor Doug Johnson, resulting in a heightened investigation by the City Ombudsman. 

Even as the city opened a few more 24-hour overnight drop-ins for the winter, it became clear that vast numbers of people were either being warehoused in inadequate conditions, or left outside. When Mayor Tory and city council voted to not accept the federal government’s offer of the federal armouries for shelter, Torontonians went ballistic. The petition jumped from 20,000 to over 50,000 signatures in days. In a powerful opinion piece in the Toronto Star, Canadian director Sarah Polley described what she witnessed on New Year’s Eve in an overcrowded city-funded emergency drop-in, and exposed yet another of Toronto’s dirty little secrets.

Within days the Mayor retracted his opposition, accepted the federal government’s offer and the Moss Park Armoury was opened.

It didn't hurt that recent weather was record-breakingly cold and provided a special weather effect reminding citizens and the media of the dangers of winter. The good news is that Torontonians quickly began to realize that the growing numbers of homeless people in the expanding overnight winter emergency sites would have nowhere to go in April when they shut down. On Christmas Day, there were 425 people counted in locations that are not even real shelters. The city's latest count shows these numbers reaching 760. We could well hit 1,000 in February. That means 1,000 people sleeping in locations that were never meant to be shelters, where no standards apply, and that's not even counting the families with children unable to get into a shelter.

The non-shelters have no regulations on how far apart mats or cots should be, or even if there must be cots.  One location has only 3 toilets for 80 people, some locations have no showers, and there are no lockers in any of the sites. This picture, taken in one such centre the first week of January this year, shows conditions that would not meet the United Nations standards for refugee camps.

As John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has stated, “The shelter emergency in Toronto at the moment represents a descending scale of human rights denial."

In response to people power, a City Hall committee along with the mayor and prominent city councillors are now calling for 1,000 new shelter beds, an extension of the winter emergency sites past April, and the immediate development of standards for these venues being used as shelters.

There is the rare critic that argues we should not fight to expand the emergency shelter system but instead divert those funds to supportive housing. They call for "housing not shelter." My experience is they are often academics or executives of organizations that have no basic experience in frontline work or understand the human suffering that is at the core of people’s lives when they are homeless. 

Advocates fighting for shelter do understand that the definition of shelter encompasses the concept of temporary protection. They have also been the loudest voices that helped to put the need for a national housing program on the map in Canada. However, until the dollars in a fully funded national housing program (not just a strategy) supported by provincial money flow, cities like Toronto will need shelters. So will other communities like Vancouver, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Kingston and Moncton, to name only a few. It's not rocket science. Reports from most areas of the country report a steep rise in homelessness, skyrocketing numbers, a reliance on mats on the floor and homeless people sleeping outside in tents and cars.

So yes, we will fight for the basic human right to shelter.

Image: Cathy Crowe.

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