129 Years of Neglect: A Brief History of Toronto's Shelter Conditions, 1887 - 2016

Image description: Map from 1890, yellowed with age. At the corner of Elm and Elizabeth Streets, there is a large building occupying 8 blocks labeled "POOR HOUSE"; this is the House of Industry mentioned below

The warehousing of homeless people in Toronto in overcrowded and vile conditions has a long history, as this collection from the past shows. Under the impact of austerity and redevelopment, the situation in 2016 is especially dreadful. The appalling levels of overcrowding are lethal at the moment and constitute an assault on health and dignity. OCAP is demanding that the Federal Armouries be opened to provide emergency shelter, as they were at various times in the 1990s and again in 2004. Pressure must be take off the system and we and our allies are working hard to prevail up Mayor John Tory and the City Council to act immediately.


A Brief History of Toronto Hostel Conditions

1.) March 22, 1887 - harsh conditions in the House of Industry casual ward:

Have any of our readers ever looked into the casual wards of the House of Industry of this city after half-past nine in the evening?.. The casual wards referred to are not models of comfort. They are not provided with beds of any kind. They are kept warm and clean, but the hard boards of the floors are all they have for beds, and a range of boards, a little raised, for pillows... There is accommodation for about 120 or 130. That is to say, there is floor room for such... Last Saturday night there were 125, and there was nothing abnormal in the number. They were lying as thickly packed as herring in a barrel. One could scarcely move without stepping on them. Perhaps about 30 or 40 in each apartment - all lying as best they could on the hard boards... And who are they that thus crowd those wards? Mostly young men.

2.) Overcrowding December 1930 – Wellington House (city took over operations following year):

By the beginning of December 1930 the city was short 2000 hostel beds. J. Allan Ross, a wealthy Toronto philanthropist, in response to the crisis, funded the operation of two new shelters for the unemployed in Toronto. “During the past week,” J. Allan Ross told the Star, “it has become definitely apparent from the rapidly increasing numbers of men sleeping on news papers, floors, boards and bricks, that housing facilities are inadequate by some two thousand beds, with an even greater urgency facing Toronto during December and January.” (74) On December 8, 1930, the Wellington House hostel, located in an old warehouse at 21 Wellington St. E., opened its doors to 600 single unemployed men. Dundas House, located in an empty bakery building near Spadina and Dundas, was also opened to accommodate 200 men.

3.) February 21, 1935. At a Toronto District Labor Council meeting in the Labor Temple, John Bruce urges members of the Labour Council to speak out and against deplorable living conditions at Wellington House. Bruce describes the treatment of unemployed people staying in city operated hostels as “brutal and inhumane”.:

“Toilet accommodation is in the basement and night pails are used. The men sleep on cots without mattresses or pillows. They are allowed two blankets and if they wish to keep off the wire mattresses they must fold a blanket under them. They must walk up five flights of stairs in their nightshirts after having put their clothes in the fumigator and had a bath. A short while ago, one man died. A number of other men who have received the same treatment are now dead and buried. I can produce evidence of these cases to Commissioner Laver. I have done so and received no satisfaction. There are men in the building who have tuberculosis and other infections mixing with the 640 men in a building that is not equipped as a residence for anyone. There is nothing more abominable in life than this residence. I want to organize labor to sow some action and call a protest meeting in Massey Hall or on the city hall steps. The food is repulsive and yet human beings have to consume it. They are attempting to discriminate against the men who are giving information to me."

4.) Unemployed ex-servicemen at City Hall demanding that Welfare Commissioner Laver address problem of overcrowding at the Crawford homeless shelter - July 1933.:

Unemployed: “These men complain of poor meals and over-crowding”
Laver: “Perhaps, you don’t realize that we have to handle these men so that they won’t want to come back.”
Unemployed: “You mean you don’t want to make a sort of ‘home’ for them?”
Laver: “That’s it – we don’t want to make it too comfortable for them.”
Unemployed: “What about getting only two meals instead of three?”
Laver: “We’re following the usual policy – three meals in the winter two in the summer”
Delegation: “[What] about the treatment in general?”
Laver: “No – I am satisfied that the conditions are all right.”
Unemployed: ‘They say they are crowded 42 to a room?”
Laver: “They are large rooms – as large as the school rooms. I don’t think that is too much.”
Unemployed: “What about the meals? – they say they are rotten?”
Laver: “It is not generally known, but the city has not paid one cent towards meals. Of the 1,000,000 or so meals last year, the city tax payer hasn’t paid one cent. They come from private sources.”
Unemployed: “And the quarters - ?”
Laver: “The beds are the same as they had at the Coliseum.”
Unemployed: “These men have signed a petition, 190 of them, so they say, and sent it to the city council about conditions at this hostel?”
Laver: “I don’t know nothing of that. I don’t think they have anything to complain about. We’ve tried to keep down the number down to less than 300 there.”
Delegation: “And in view of recent complaints you’ll make no investigation of the Crawford St. hostelry?”
Laver: “No – I’m satisfied things are as good as they can be under the circumstances.”
Unemployed: “You have your troubles with the human site of relief applicants?”
Laver: “We don’t want to make it too comfortable for them.” was the answer, with the assurance there’d be no investigation into the Crawford St. hostelry conditions, as far as he was concerned.

5.) From Cary Fagan, The Fred Victor Mission Story :

By the end of the Second World War the city was forced to re-open St. Lawrence Hall as a hostel because so many of the war veterans who had come back from the war could not find work. “As the war industry shut down and the veterans returned home to look for jobs, unemployment and homelessness increased again,” wrote Cary Fagan, “The charitable organizations could not deal adequately with the upsurge of people needing relief.” The city approached Father Hunnisset, who was still at the Fred Victor Mission, and asked him to run the St. Lawrence Hall hostel in the winter of 1949. The Fred Victor Mission hostel, which had become a permanent fixture by now, was also operating during this period.

“The hostel was made visible each night by the line-up outside the door that began about 6:30,” wrote Fagan, “The men weren’t allowed in until 8:00 unless the weather was bad . . . Inside the facilities were still inadequate. Most men slept on the floor and had to share just four toilets and two taps for drinking water.”

6.) Fred Victor Hostel Conditions - 1973 – The Fred Victor Mission Story, by Cary Fagan. Fagan recounts an incident witnessed by employee of tension that exited as men lined up to get a bed at Fred Victor Mission hostel:

"On the evening of her job interview she saw a line-up of men outside waiting to get a bed. While the Mission had already dropped the rule of limiting length of stay to two weeks, the men still had to show up by 6:00 to be sure of getting their bed from the night before. By 6:30 any not taken were then filled. The scene of desperate men jostling to get a place was disturbing to see. The men shouted at one another, tempers flared, and pushing matches sometimes turned into fights."

7.) Overcrowded conditions at All Saints Church overnight shelter – 1980’s – From The Church is Dead! Long Live the Church!, by Rev. Norm Ellis:

"During the winter at weeks ends (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) this large hall is open as an “Overnight Drop-In” for the people who have no where to sleep or who cannot afford a rooming house, or who are barred from the missions...We work in conjunction with the Salvation Army, Fred Victor Mission and City Social Services. Numbers vary from about eighty to a hundred and fifty. We have no beds because we are not a hostel, so the best we can offer are ”moving pads” to sleep on a very hard floor. It is a sad state of society that as many as 150 men sleep in these conditions, when other facilities of the missions are filled to capacity."

8.) Aftermath of Drina Joubert's freezing death - December 1985:

Over the next six weeks (after Joubert’s death) another homeless woman and two homeless men would also die of exposure on Toronto streets. The bundled up body of 64 year old Ann Regan was found at the bottom of an outside stairwell leading to the underground parking garage of a Sherbourne Street apartment. Several days earlier Daniel (Ken) Currie, 69, died of exposure while “curled up near a heating vent in an alley near Moss Armorie.” Both deaths occurred within a few blocks of where Drina Joubert was found. 6. (“Bag lady, 64, dies in parking garage,” The Toronto Star, by KJim Wilkes, January 29, 1986) and (“Frozen body of bag lady is found in outside stairwell”, The Globe and Mail, by Paul Taylor, January 29, 1986.) Several days after Ann Regan died John Benjamin Carrey’s lifeless frozen body was discovered under a bridge north of Eglington. Carrey, 55 and homeless, had also died of exposure. 7. (“Dead man identified”, The Globe and Mail, February 8, 1986.) According to Toronto police 19 people had died from exposure since the beginning of 1984. 8. (“Women too difficult for hostel to control, director tells inquest,” The Globe and Mail, by Paul Taylor, February 18, 1986)

“There is no question there’s not enough beds,” Peggy Anne Wapole, director of Street Haven, told the Star two days after Joubert’s death. She added that her 20 bed hostel turned away 30 to 35 women a night. The All Saints Church women’s hostel was also turning away 5 to 20 women each night. John Jagt, head of hostel services, would confirm at the inquest claims by anti-poverty organizations that the system could not meet the demands of women seeking shelter. “I think we’ve got a serious problem with these women,” he told jurors during the inquest. “The system is close to capacity all the time.”

9.) The Toronto Star describes shelter conditions captured on videotape - May 2002:

The bodies are jammed together, men and women, on the floor in a windowless basement. A man coughing stumbles around sleeping bodies, trying to find room on the floor for his mat and sleeping bag. … There’s a blur of bodies – dozens in sleeping bags, others wrapped in blankets, still more on the metal chairs talking at a table. The bright lights stay on all night.