OCAP | Homelessness
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is a direct action anti-poverty organization that fights for more shelter beds, social housing, and a raise in social assistance rates.
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Homeless Encampments: Open Letter to Mayor Tory

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.

The City is using “health and safety” as an excuse to destroy the encampments but the United Nations and the Center for Disease Control both say it is unsafe to do this. The CDC says:

  • If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.
    • Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.

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/.

Remembering Al

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.

News Conference on COVID-19 Response

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 full news conference is below. Media coverage is here: CP24 | CTV

The speakers made a case for the following:

  1. Rapid and dramatic increase in shelter spaces, particularly motel or hotel rooms accessible to homeless people to ease overcrowding in existing emergency centres and allow for social distancing and physical isolation. The expansion must include new drop-in spaces to compensate for the closure of lunch programs, coffee shops, and municipal facilities like libraries and community centres which has near-eliminated infrastructure homeless people for food, indoor space, and sanitation.
  2. An immediate boost to social assistance rates to compensate for the loss of food programs, soup kitchens, and the cost of self-quarantining; extending coverage to people without immigration status.
  3. Expanded access to safer opioid prescribing programs, overdose prevention sites and making witnessed injection and harm reduction support available at quarantine facilities; ensuring access to personal protective equipment at overdose prevention sites and working with people who use drugs to prevent further escalation in overdoses and overdose related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rapid & Dramatic Shelter and Drop-in Expansion Necessary

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.

Defend Tenants of the Inglewood Arms

Monday, Jan 27 | 9 am | 655 Bay Street (one block south of Bay/Gerrard)
Rally at 9am, then pack the hearing room (15th floor) at 10am
Facebook event

The Inglewood Arms is a licensed rooming house with approximately 90 tenants. It’s located close to Jarvis and Dundas. It has housed poor and working class people for over 30 years. Now, a real estate behemoth – Minto – wants to tear it down and build a 36 storey condo.

The City has not yet approved the application, but tenants are already feeling pressured to move out. Not willing to cave in the midst of a deadly housing crisis, they are fighting back. We are supporting them.

Join us this Monday, Jan 27 at 9 am for a rally and press conference at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal to launch a fight that will take on the landlord, the City and the developer.

Here is the brief on the three fronts:

The Landlord: The landlord argues the Residential Tenancies Act does not apply to tenants at the Inglewood. The Act protects renters rights; claiming it doesn’t apply allows the landlord to evict tenants with no process. A tenant of 10 years at the Inglewood has appealed to the Landlord and Tenant board to get a determination that the Act does in fact apply. The hearing is in March.

The City: The City is currently in negotiations with the developer. Our message is clear – no compromises with tenants’ lives. Tenants must be guaranteed housing in the new development and adequately compensated for the interim displacement.

Minto: Minto is fighting the City’s rooming house protection policy at the provincial Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. If Minto wins, it will be a setback for tenants at all rooming houses across the City. On Monday, Jan 27 an Inglewood tenant will formally seek to be part of the hearings. This will be a launch of the fight to defend the tenants of Inglewood, and of rooming houses around the City. Join us at 9am for the rally and then help us pack the hearing room!

Open Letter to Mayor Tory: Call Off the Homeless Sweeps

The letter below was issued by the Shelter and Housing Justice Network on Friday, January 3, 2020. There will be a press conference to address the situation on Monday, January 6 at Noon at Lawren Harris park (Rosedale Valley Rd & Park Rd).

Dear Mayor John Tory,

The Parks, Forestry and Recreation department has said it will be dismantling homeless encampments in the Rosedale valley on January 7, 2020.

There is no justification for these sweeps in the midst of a deadly shortage of shelter space in the city. People are camped outside in the bitter cold because the housing crisis rages on unchecked and the City’s shelter system is overwhelmed. Conditions within these emergency centres are difficult and often unsafe because of chronic overcrowding, short-staffing and a general lack of necessary resources. The private market is such that even those able to access the housing allowance find it impossible to find a place to rent.

Forcibly dismantling homeless encampments – be they under the Gardiner or in the Rosedale valley – is nothing more than an attempt to make homelessness invisible rather than addressing the problem. In the absence of adequate shelter or housing, the encampments just rise up once again. Despite having seen this time and again, the administration continues to subject homeless people to the ritualized humiliation and hardship of being displaced and having their belongings confiscated, only to then be informed that the emergency system is full.

You must call off these brutal sweeps, starting with the one planned for January 7, and focus City resources on adding sufficient shelter spaces and building publicly owned rent-geared-to-income housing. That’s the only way to make sure no one has to resort to sleeping under bridges and in the ravines of this wealthy city. Our network will be mobilizing around the upcoming sweep and will challenge attempts at evicting people that your administration has effectively abandoned to the streets.

Sincerely,

Rafi Aaron, Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness
Yogi Acharya and Cat Chhina, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
Greg Cook, Sanctuary Outreach
Cathy Crowe, Street Nurse
Bob Rose

on behalf of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network

Statement on the City’s Winter Plan

The City’s winter plan for emergency shelter will leave vulnerable people scrambling to find space indoors. Hundreds of people will endure the inhumane conditions within respite centres or line up outside each night in hopes of getting a spot at a volunteer led program. Many will be left outside in the cold. Shelters and respite sites were full all summer and the City’s plan to open additional winter spaces will not be enough to meet the growing need. 

Last week, the City of Toronto released its plan to open 485 spaces in the coming weeks, including 200 beds for refugees/asylum claimants in North York. The plan provides 94 more spaces than last year and 85 of them are transitional housing so they won’t be available for emergency shelter. This means there will only be the addition of 9 emergency spaces this winter. This is unacceptable. The homeless crisis is intensifying daily. Shelters, respite centres, and drop-ins are full, with no real relief in site. 

This summer we witnessed an unprecedented demand for shelter. Even a chair or mat on the floor in an overcrowded respite site was hard to come by. The Peter Street Referral Centre, the City’s last resort for a warm place to stay, began turning people away. With rising rents and stagnant incomes the need for shelter is growing exponentially. 

In the past, shelter occupancy rates were based on the number of beds available. The City is now counting cots, mats on the floor and even chairs as shelter spaces, and the system is still over capacity. Earlier shelter standards required 2.5 feet between beds. People are now crammed into respite sites, sleeping inches apart from each other without access to privacy, adequate bathroom facilities, or rest.

In respite sites people with chronic illnesses and older adults struggle to climb onto cots and mats on the floor. Outbreaks of lice, scabies, bed bugs and infectious diseases are never ending and nearly impossible to contain. The poor conditions, extreme stress and chronic exhaustion people must endure are causing illness. This is an emergency. The shelter system is in crisis.

Last week seven deaths were added to the Toronto Homeless Memorial, and the body of Richard Fontaine was found near Queen’s Quay, where he lived outside. Homeless people are dying prematurely and this year’s inadequate winter shelter plan will contribute to more deaths.

The City must declare an emergency, open 2000 new shelter beds now, and immediately break ground on new rent-geared-to-income housing. In a city with so much wealth it is disgraceful to have people dying on the streets for lack of basic shelter and housing. The 2000 new shelter beds would bring the shelter system to its City Council mandated goal of 90% occupancy, a goal it has never met. With shelters at above 90% occupancy, it becomes nearly impossible to find a bed for anyone.

On November 11th as a cold snap loomed, sustained community pressure pushed the city to open 30 cots at a Metro Hall warming centre. While cold makes things worse, the crisis exists at -10 degrees, -5 degrees, and at 10 degrees. This winter, OCAP will fight for 2000 safe, secure shelter spaces. We will fight for deeply affordable social housing. We will fight for and with the people of this city; and, we will fight to win.

Build Solidarity: Rally For Dundas & Sherbourne

Thursday, October 24 | 6pm-7:30pm | Dundas and Sherbourne
Meal Provided | Facebook Event

The downtown east belongs to all its residents. The healthcare and homeless services here serve a critical need for the area’s poor people and save lives. But some wealthier neighbours, organized through the local residents’ association, are agitating for their closure and are opposed to any new services opening. The resulting tensions are turning the neighbourhood, and Dundas and Sherbourne in particular, into a battleground.

Toronto’s deadly housing crisis and severe shelter shortage are responsible for escalating homelessness. Attacking the people suffering its worst consequences or the services they rely on doesn’t solve the issue. It only shows a vicious disregard for poor people’s lives.

We can build a vibrant neighbourhood by choosing solidarity over bigotry. United, we can fight to turn 214-230 Sherbourne into affordable rent-geared-to-income housing, build adequate shelters, and expand health services for all.

Join us for a rally to demonstrate that solidarity and build the fight for housing and shelter.