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As we approach National Housing Day on November 22nd, the shelter and housing crisis in our City is unlike anything we have ever seen before.
COVID-19 has amplified this crisis as more people lose income and struggle to survive. The provincial and municipal governments refuse to institute a moratorium on evictions, paving the way for new waves of evictions. Shelters are full, and remain sites of fear for a perfect storm for COVID transmission as conditions do not allow for distancing or enough personal space. Encampments have grown in every park across the city, and communities of people in tents are staring down the approaching cold weather with no real alternatives. All levels of government have failed miserably to house people. We see drops in the bucket, tiny Bandaids on a giant wound. The City of Toronto recently opened up the Better Living Centre as a respite site, complete with dystopian cell-like glass cubes – no privacy, no respect for the dignity of poor people in our city, no offer of one person one room, nor enough beds for everyone who needs them right now.
Overdose deaths have nearly doubled since last year. Doubled. We are seeing the collision of the housing/shelter crisis with an overdose crisis and the results are catastrophic. Communities are losing people – loved ones, friends – at a shocking and horrific rate. This grief and trauma cannot be measured.
We need housing and we need it now. Not trickled down half measures, but bold, determined, full access – HOUSING. Immediately.
In the spring we fought for access to hotels and housing as an alternative to overcrowded shelters. We won some spaces in hotels, but that has proved to be, once again, a drop in the bucket, and with a dangerous lack of adequate harm reduction supports on-site. A few weeks ago we marched again on 214-230 Sherbourne, an empty property and abandoned building in the middle of one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, to demand it be expropriated and immediately converted to housing, which the city had promised to do.
As we head into another winter. As COVID-19 cases rise dramatically, it feels like entire communities are left on deflating lifeboats. Who will get a chance to survive?
Today, we renew our support for the 6 Demands for Immediate Action created by Encampment Support Network:
Many people across Toronto and beyond are organizing and resisting – from supporting the encampments to blocking evictions – poor and working-class people who are defending themselves, supporting each other, and organizing.
In the same way, there can be no half-measures from the government, there can be no half-measures in our organizing as we fight for what poor and working-class people need to survive in this critical moment. If you are not already in the struggle – join it. Join a neighbourhood anti-eviction committee with Parkdale Organize or People’s Defence, join the Encampment Support Network, join Jane Finch Action Against Poverty, join OCAP, or fight where you are. Let’s work together, let’s organize, let’s win.
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
November 22, 2020
Update: We won a reprieve from eviction through the tenacity of the residents of Moss Park, community organizing and legal action combined. But we need to keep up the pressure. Please Phone/Email/Tweet this week to say you support people in all the encampments and want housing for all!
Phone/Tweet/Email Zap Action Today!
Giuliana Carbon: 416-338-7205 – email@example.com
*Sample Tweet/scripts below*
In the midst of multiple deadly crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, the overdose crisis and the housing crisis, the City of Toronto is at the ready to evict yet another group of people who have been living in a public park together. The City has served people living in the Moss Park Encampment an eviction notice for tomorrow and threatened this group of homeless people with $10,000 fines and the destruction of their property.
We need your help today to tell the Mayor and Deputy City Manager that the community will not tolerate this attack on homeless people.
Fourteen residents of various encampments, along with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society (TOPS) are filing suit against the City of Toronto to prevent the eviction of all encampments without the provision of adequate and acceptable accommodation. Aware of the lawsuit, the City has decided to go ahead with the lawsuit anyway.
Derrick Black, Moss Park Encampment resident and named applicant says: “I don’t like how they deal with people in the park. The enforcement is too much. I’m not moving until I get housing. I’m tired of the promises.”
Toronto’s shelter system has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 617 positive COVID cases have been confirmed in city shelters, with 38 different outbreaks across shelter sites leading to at least 4 deaths. The hotel-shelters people are offered space in are inadequate for those remaining in the park. Three of the named Applicants in the litigation have abandoned their hotel-shelter rooms because they found the conditions unacceptable. Hotel-shelter rooms are often far from where they have been living and where their necessary supports are, taking 1 to 2 hours by transit, to return to the area. The hotel-shelters are run like shelters, don’t permit visitors, can have curfews as early as 9 pm and create the conditions for overdose to occur. There have been at least two fatal overdoses in these hotels.
The City is justifying the eviction of Moss Park on the grounds of “health and safety” even though the United Nations and the Center for Disease Control have said it is unsafe to dismantle encampments in the context of COVID-19.
What to say when you call/email:
I support the people in the encampments who have been living there for months. If you are concerned about “health and safety” you should supply water, washroom facilities, and fire safety equipment – not displace people. Displacing people goes against what both the CDC and UN recommend because it is safer for people in encampments to stay where they are unless they are being housed. Hotel-shelters that are far from their communities and services and that have restrictive rules are not safe for all people. The city should be consulting with homeless people as to what housing will work for them. Homeless people should never have had to sue the city simply to stay in tents in a park because there is no safer place to go; this signals a widespread failure on the part of the City. Stop the eviction of Moss Park immediately! Supply all of the encampments with the amenities the residents say they need to be healthier and safer.
Sample Tweet 1:
I support the people in the #encampments. @JohnTory stop the eviction of Moss Park Encampment now! The shelters are full and often unsafe and the motel-shelters often full and not appropriate for many people. #StopEncampmentEvictions #HousingForAll
Sample Tweet 2
#StopEncampmentEvictions. @JohnTory don’t evict Moss Park Encampment. If you are really concerned about “health and safety,” give people water, washrooms and fire safety equipment. Don’t displace them in contravention of #CDC and #UN guidelines and basic human decency.
Take 3 minutes to help stop the unjust and unsafe eviction of the Moss Park Encampment.
Photo by Doug Johnson-Hatlem
Wednesday, July 22 at 11 am | Peter St. Referral Centre | 129 Peter St. (at Richmond)
The state of homelessness continues to grow and reach bigger crisis levels in the City of Toronto.
With the added problem of COVID, the situation is rapidly deteriorating. The shelter system capacity has been cut in half and has not been replaced adequately by hotels or housing. Including all of the backup respite sites, there has still been a loss of over 500 spaces. The Peter St. referral centre remains closed and there is nowhere to refer people to for safe space as the shelters are both full and hazardous to people’s health. The only housing being built in the City remains unaffordable and inaccessible, while the Province is moving to make thousands more homeless through Bill 184 and by lifting the moratorium on evictions.
For the well over a thousand people already sleeping on the streets and in the parks there is no where else to go. Still they face threat of displacement and criminalization by the City. Instead of providing basic needs for people to live like housing, the City continues to invest over $1.1 billion a year into racist, violent policing.
Call out the City and demand action to confront this crisis we are facing.
We demand the City:
John Clarke – Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
Desmond Cole – Activist, Journalist, Author
Zoe Dodd – Toronto Overdose Prevention Society
Greg Cook – Shelter Housing Justice Network and Outreach Worker at Sanctuary
ALSO- Speaker from Parkdale Organize
Dear Mayor Tory and Toronto City Council,
The pandemic has been utterly devastating to homeless communities in Toronto. Congregate living arrangements in packed shelters continue to leave thousands of homeless people exposed and the City has failed to open up sufficient housing units and hotel rooms. A lawsuit was necessary for the City to agree to implement basic physical distancing standards in all its respites and shelters – which still has yet to take place. People staying in the homeless shelter system contract COVID-19 at a rate of 19 times that of Toronto’s housed population.*
The situation has forced hundreds, likely well over a thousand people, to seek protection in tents outdoors. Despite this, you’ve reversed a prior moratorium and are now actively clearing homeless encampments.
We call on you to follow the advice of international health experts by immediately ending the dismantling of homeless encampments and open up vacant housing units or hotel rooms for homeless people. Moving forward, we further call on you not to worsen the already pre-COVID shelter crisis by implementing deadly austerity measures; rather, to have the foresight to recognize low income housing as an urgent health need and create more units.
The shelters are full. Homeless people and front-line workers experience the inability to access beds on a daily basis.
It outlines supports the City should be putting in place instead – like ensuring people have washroom access. The US National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty says:
preserving individuals’ ability to sleep in private tents instead of mass facilities through repealing—or at least pausing enforcement of—ordinances banning camping or sleeping in public would ensure people can more safely shelter in place, maintain social distancing, and reduce sleep deprivation. Encampments should be provided with preventative solutions—like mobile toilets, sanitation stations, and trash bins—to further reduce harm.
Instead, the City says it has a policy of guaranteeing people “indoor placement” for people who are evicted from the encampments. There are two serious problems with this claim. The first is that this has not been the case in several instances. The second is that these are often shelter or respite placements; they put people right back into the conditions they left.
The City’s COVID-19 strategy has been a disaster for homeless people in Toronto. While the pandemic was unavoidable, the current crisis in Toronto’s shelter system was not. Years of austerity have ensured that our City has insufficient low income housing and emergency housing.
The crisis that homeless people are currently in is largely the result of decisions made by City Council. In the coming months, moving into a potentially unprecedented series of evictions, you can learn from your mistakes and pass a budget that not only refuses to cut shelter and housing but recognizes the urgent public health need for more low income housing and commits funds for more rent-geared-to-income units.
Again, this is what we need:
Today: a moratorium on encampment evictions.
Urgently: a permanent housing unit or a hotel unit for every single person in the shelter system.
In the budget: More housing and shelter, not less!
Failure to implement these measures will result in public action.
With the utmost sincerity,
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
157 Carlton St #201
Toronto, ON. M5A 2K3
416 925 6939
ocap.ca | @OCAPtoronto | facebook.com/OcapToronto
* While there are higher rates of testing in some shelters than in the general public, people staying in shelters test positive for COVID-19 at 1.8 times rate of all those tested in Ontario (https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-records-323-new-covid-19-cases-amid-record-number-of-tests-completed-in-single-day-1.4961672 ). Based on COVI-19 data for May 29, 2020 from: https://www.toronto.ca/home/covid-19/covid-19-latest-city-of-toronto-news/covid-19-status-of-cases-in-toronto/; July 2018 population data from: https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/data-research-maps/toronto-at-a-glance/; Toronto shelter population as of May 24th, provided to plaintiffs as per settlement agreement: https://ccla.org/toronto-must-defend-homeless/.
There are over a thousand names on Toronto’s Homeless Memorial. Imagine for a moment the magnitude of grief that list of names represents – the family and friends who lost someone they cared about.
We want to take a moment to remember one person who many of us cared about and who meant a lot to OCAP. Al Honen was a 51 year-old Anishinaabe man, a father and a friend.
Al was a member of OCAP for many years and, about 10 or 12 years ago, was on our Executive Committee – the elected leadership body of our organization.
Al first got involved in OCAP during the Mike Harris years. Another OCAP member, Brian, and Al were both staying at Seaton House, Canada’s largest homeless shelter. At that time, Brian was fighting a lot with Seaton House about the conditions there and he recalls “Al was on my side.” So, Brian invited Al to join OCAP.
Al wasn’t afraid to be publicly named when Seaton House refused him a bed when he had flu symptoms in 2009. Seaton House was acting against Toronto Public Health’s advice. Al was concerned for others who would be turned out into the cold and wanted to take action. He had a tough life on the streets, but he always had compassion for other homeless people.
Al was often smiling and cracking jokes. Brian and Al would often panhandle in Yorkville together and Al liked panhandling from famous people. The two of them would tell the stars jokes. Brian would tell jokes about people from Newfoundland – like himself. Al would tell Native jokes. Brian remembers one he would often tell: “you know what the best nation is? A donation.”
Al’s smile always grew biggest when he talked about his daughter.
Over the years, things got harder for Al. He had been on the list for housing for many years but had no hope of getting it. Al told one OCAP member “I’m going to die on the streets.” Al died homeless in a hospital ICU of non-COVID related pneumonia. His daughter was with him in his last moments.
Al, you are missed.
This morning (Monday, March 23), OCAP and Shelter and Housing Justice Network organized a news conference to call for the urgent implementation of critical measures necessary to mitigate the deadly impacts of COVID-19 on homeless people, those on social assistance, and on those whose lives are being saved by the overdose prevention sites.
The speakers made a case for the following:
Rapid and dramatic increase in shelter and drop-in space needed to slow COVID-19 spread and curb deadly consequences for Toronto’s homeless
Chronic overcrowding in Toronto’s shelters, respites and drop-in sites make social distancing and physical isolation impossible. Inability to implement the critical public health measures in the context of the current pandemic make these spaces even more dangerous to the health of homeless people, the workers that serve them, and the broader public.
Compounding the problem, recent closures and scaling back of drop-ins, food programs, coffee shops, and municipal facilities like libraries and community centres has drastically reduced the infrastructure homeless people rely on for food, indoor space and sanitation.
It is imperative that enough spaces be added to the emergency homeless shelter system to allow for adequate physical separation between people, and when required, isolation. It is also imperative that drop-in spaces with access to food and washrooms be opened.
With most city buildings closed to the public, the City has immediate access to multiple spaces (community centres, city hall, metro hall, armouries, and more) that can be repurposed to alleviate crowding in emergency homeless centres and provide relief to the many who cannot access the shelter system.
The City has announced it will add 200 spaces by the end of this week but the shelter system needs at least 10 times the number of spaces to bring occupancy levels down to manageable levels. This shortage is a product of over two decades of neglect and it has left little room to manage sudden crises such as the one we now face.
In order to avert the catastrophic possibility of a rapid spread of COVID-19 in the emergency homeless spaces, the City must dramatically increase spaces homeless people can access and do it fast. This means adding well beyond 200 spaces this week and drastically ramping up that capacity in the coming days. Drop-in spaces providing food, bathrooms, showers and telephone access must be part of this expansion because homeless people unable to access shelters have nowhere left to go.
For years, the powerful in this City have abandoned poor and homeless people to a life of misery. They must not be allowed to do so any longer.