Eighty people have died in the last two years as a direct result of homelessness in Toronto. That’s one homeless person dying every 10 days. In 1985, people fighting homelessness started keeping track of these senseless, and entirely preventable deaths. Since that time, they’ve recorded over 800 deaths – lives sacrificed in service of a perverse economic logic that demands ever more cuts from the destitute and grants ever more comforts to the rich. Talk to anyone who has used the City’s emergency shelter system, or anyone who works with people using shelters, and a grim picture emerges of chronic overcrowding, bug infested dormitories, the recurrent spread of contagious diseases, and the perpetual lack of sufficient beds.
The City’s own ‘Daily Shelter Census,’ which provides a nightly count of occupancy rates in shelters, documents the sorry state of affairs. In 1999, City Council set a target of keeping occupancy levels in shelters at a maximum of 90%, in recognition of the fact that anything above that level in practice meant people could not get beds. The target has been acknowledged, and then ignored by the city for 18 years straight. A Street Needs Assessment conducted by the city in 2013 pegged the homeless population in Toronto at just above 5000, a number that has only grown since then, owing to ever-rising rents, a decreasing stock of social housing, and below-inflation increases (effectively cuts) to social assistance year after year.
A recent Toronto Star article reported that the number of homeless people calling the City’s central intake line in need of a bed rose by 13.2% in 2016. The number of individual refugees and families looking for shelter has more than tripled in the same time. Yet, the city only provided an average of 4,122 beds each month last year, significantly below the need. Those unable to get a shelter bed are left to hunt for survival spaces like the volunteer-run Out of the Cold programs or warming centres (which only opened after a fight by homeless advocates), which have no beds or lockers, and lack adequate washroom and storage facilities. Even these overflow facilities fill up, leaving many with no option but to risk death out in the cold. The conditions are bad enough that over 30 organizations, many of which receive funding from the city, decided to speak out publicly, risk losing their funding, and call on the Mayor of the city, John Tory, to add desperately needed shelter capacity and open up the armouries as an interim measure.
Mayor John Tory’s response to this crisis of human suffering is to offer platitudes, misleading numbers and bold-faced lies. In a response to the letter submitted by the agencies, Tory wrote one to the Toronto Star, a longer version of which he published on his own facebook page, telling people to essentially keep calm and carry on. He tells us he really cares about poor people, he tells us that he has visited shelters himself, that spaces are being added and that things are going to be all right. To understand just how dubious his claims are and how disconcerting his actions are, let’s take look at the four statements he makes in his letter.
- ⟿ “…In November, my council colleagues and I provided the city’s general manager of shelter, support and housing administration with an additional $2-million to implement the 2017 Winter Readiness Plan…”
The additional $2-million was approved by the City Council to fund some additional, though still inadequate, survival spaces following ongoing agitation by homeless people and their allies about the appalling conditions plaguing the system and a realization that unless something is done we were looking at a certainty of deaths this winter.
However, John Tory is now set to cut over $1-million from that same administration in his upcoming 2017 budget. The cuts will result in reductions in “front-line positions in shelters include client service workers, counselor, food service workers, program supervisors, registered nurse, street outreach counselor, social housing consultant.” The City will also eliminate the Emergency Cooling Centre Program, which provides heat relief to the homeless in the hot summer months.
- ⟿ “The City of Toronto has opened 126 beds in the last month and, next week, a 96-bed shelter for families operated by Red Door will open.”
The City’s own reports documents how by the last quarter of 2016, owing to three shelter closures in the downtown core, the city was actually 169 beds short compared to the total beds it had in 2015. That number does not include another 103 beds temporarily shut down at Seaton House resulting from a Strep A outbreak in September 2016, resulting from chronic overcrowding at that shelter. So, yes, while the new beds have been added, they don’t come close to making up the number of beds the City has lost.
Also, when new shelters are added to replace ones that are closed down, they are being opened away from the downtown core. Abandoned in the suburbs, without access to the critical support services (e.g. food banks, health centres, soup kitchens, etc.), and with prohibitively expensive transit costs, the homeless are simply expected to vanish.
Adding pressure to the homelessness crisis is the reality that the absence of repair funding in the upcoming budget means Toronto Community Housing will board up 425 units this year, and “a unit a day” in 2018.
- ⟿ “The city has also extended the 24-hour cold weather drop-in service to mid-March. Availability of the 24-hour service was originally planned to end Feb. 28.”
Undoubtedly winters are far less harsh for residents of Tory’s luxurious “Tower of Power,” the downtown condo building Tory calls home, but for everyone else in Toronto the cold weather doesn’t end in February. So extending the 24-hour warming centres for two more weeks, especially when there is a crisis of insufficient beds, is far from praiseworthy. The fact that Tory expects our gratitude for the token extension, which still ends well before the cold weather does, is just shameful.
- ⟿ “As to the ongoing suggestion of opening the armouries, city staff have advised against this as they do not believe those buildings provide adequate or appropriate shelter space.”
The hypocrisy of that statement is simply mind-boggling. The armouries are far from ideal, but they are better than the streets, and they have been used before – at least four times in the past 20 years – for the purposes of providing emergency shelter to the homeless. If the City was so concerned about appropriate and adequate shelter space, it wouldn’t abandon so many homeless to the Out of the Cold programs, where, infamously, basic shelter standards do not apply.
Mayor John Tory likes to talk about his “values,” which he claims include “inclusion and acceptance, honesty, fair play, decency and respect.” Much like his letter, polite, yet deceptive, misleading and untrue, his personal belief systems are laid bare by the track record of his actions. This is the same man who when running for the Mayor’s office in 2003 supported a ban on panhandling by poor people in the downtown core; the same man who doesn’t believe that our society has privileged rich white men like him; and the same man who continues to keep Toronto’s property taxes the lowest in Ontario – benefitting multi-million dollar property owners such as himself. Maybe a better gauge of his “inclusive” and “decent” tendencies is his long association with Nick Kouvalis, the racist bigot who ran his election campaign and was the person behind Kellie Leitch’s reprehensible ‘Canadian values’ dog-whistle politics.
Mayor John Tory is a liar, he is more sophisticated than the blundering Rob Ford, but his conservative tendencies and hatred of the poor are not masked by his smooth talking. Actions speak louder than words, and ours certainly will when we confront his hypocrisy and lies on Thursday, February 9th at 11am, when Tory is scheduled to speak at the C.D. Howe institute, a neoliberal policy think-tank. Join us there to demand a reversal of the cuts to shelters and housing in the upcoming budget, and the immediate opening of the federal armouries. •
Yogi Acharya is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), a poor people’s organization working in the downtown east end of Toronto for over 25 years.