A homeless man died at the Salvation Army Maxwell Meighen shelter yesterday. We watched in the early afternoon, along with others, as he was brought out in a black body bag, placed in the back of a van, and driven away.
Who was he? What was his name? When did he die? Was he young or old? Did he have serious health issues? Was he depressed? Was he born in Toronto or was he from another city? Does he have a family? Will be be buried in a pauper’s grave?
The city is scrambling to address to address a serious homeless crisis. A man enters a shelter and leaves in a body bag. What happened to him? When did he arrive at the shelter? How long was he there? How long had he been homeless? Does anyone at the City care enough to answer these questions? The Coroner? The Police? The shelter management?
Will those who have answers to these questions break their silence? Should we not all know that a homeless man died there yesterday in these extraordinary times? Should we not ask what happened?
All of us should be troubled by the images of a dead man being carried out of a homeless shelter. All three levels of government must act to address this crisis. We cannot allow this to go on.
Opening of Moss Park Armouries Necessary But Temporary Measure
More Permanent Shelter Beds Needed
Toronto – January 5, 2018 – Almost a month after officially refusing to request the opening of the armouries as emergency shelter, Mayor John Tory has caved under mounting pressure and requested the use of the Moss Park armoury. Communication from the federal government today indicates that the armoury will open tonight as a 24/7 winter respite center for two weeks.
“The immediate opening of the armoury and involvement of all three levels of government is a good step and an important victory for homeless people in this city,” says Gaetan Heroux, a longtime OCAP organizer. “Despite the opening of the armouries, it’s clear that the city continues to scramble. We still have questions about what the Provinces role will be and want to make sure the new space is adequate. Also, all winter respite programs end on April 15th but, homelessness doesn’t end on April 15th,” Heroux adds.
There were 630 people staying in the Out Of The Colds, 24/7 drop-ins and warming centres last night. “In order to meet the demand, at least 630 new permanent beds must added to the shelter system by April 15th to ensure that people currently forced to stay in winter respite sites and drop-ins have a safe place to go,” says OCAP organizer A.J. Withers. “While warming centres will save lives this winter, conditions within most are appalling and these facilities don’t necessarily meet the City’s own shelter or public health standards. The city is relying on these substandard survival spaces but we need permanent beds in the downtown core and we need them now.”
We are also calling on Mayor Tory to stop his racist and disablist scapegoating of refugees and people with mental health issues. He consistently names these groups as part of the cause of the crisis. The shelter crisis has been ongoing for over 2 decades and has intensified in recent years as a result of Council’s neglect, and the housing and income crisis. Social housing units are being boarded up, there isn’t enough low income rental housing, and social assistance rates are too low. Refugees and people with mental health issues are the casualties of policies enacted by all three levels of government.
The way to resolve the shelter crisis is to ensure the shelter system’s capacity levels are maintained at 90% – a City Council mandate that has never been met. Occupancy rates are consistently 95% or higher which means that it is often impossible to get a shelter bed and the shelters are overcrowded, unsafe and prone to disease outbreak and bedbugs. The city needs to ensure that the budget includes sufficient funds to make that happen. Like many improvements to the shelter system over the past decades, OCAP and our allies fought for and won the opening of the Moss Park Armoury. OCAP will continue to fight for sufficient beds and better conditions within the shelter system, and for social housing – and we fight to win.
In a show of callous disregard towards the lives of homeless people, city council voted yesterday to reject the proposals made by the Community Development and Recreation Committee (CDRC) on November 20 that included the immediate opening of the federal armouries and the addition of at least 1000 new shelter beds. With a few notable exceptions, most councillors cast their support behind the counter-proposal announced by Mayor John Tory this past Sunday. In doing so, they made decisions that will leave most homeless people in crisis, do little to alleviate overcrowding in shelters, and, in all likelihood, continue the horrifying trend of 8 homeless people dying every month.
The proposals championed by Tory are the result of a series of compromises brokered by Councillor Joe Mihevc with an administration that is opposed to dedicating the level of resources the situation demands. However, in his sorry attempts to gain favour with a conservative Mayor, Mihevc not only voted against his own prior motion to add a thousand beds but also sabotaged an attempt by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to open the armouries. This last move was particularly troubling because it came following an announcement by the federal government that it is prepared to negotiate the use of the armouries as a temporary homeless shelter, should the City request it. Wong-Tam’s motion to get the City to put in that request gained support, but ultimately failed 17-25, with Mihevc and the Mayor voting against.
The motions that passed closely echoed the announcement made by the Mayor over the weekend. They call on City staff to assess the possibility of opening up to 400 spaces across existing shelters, motel rooms and a drop-in centre. Furthermore, they asks City staff to attempt to open 3 shelters, originally scheduled to open in 2019, sometime next year.
There are two fundamental problems with these proposals:
1. They do not provide immediate respite for the majority of homeless people
Unlike the armouries, which have the infrastructure to provide shelter beds to hundreds of people, and could be opened within a matter of days, the proposals that passed do not guarantee the expansion of beds in the coming weeks, or even months. The City is relying on cramming beds in already overcrowded existing shelters. Most shelters have already been through this process before and are already packed. Further crowding, if even possible, will dramatically increase the risk of infectious diseases, infestations and violence. The City also plans to rely on more motel beds which may benefit homeless families but won’t help single people – who form the largest section of the homeless population. Lastly, the City’s proposed new drop-in space, even if opened relatively quickly, would not provide beds or adequate washroom facilities.
This means the majority of the homeless will remain in a situation very similar to the one they are in now – forced to either sleep rough or crowd into survival spaces like the drop-ins which are not equipped to serve as shelters. These proposals will not prevent harm this winter or make a substantive impact on the current shelter crisis.
2. A year from now, we still won’t have sufficient beds
While any addition of permanent beds in the current situation marks an improvement, unless a certain threshold is crossed, the crisis will persist. That threshold today is the addition of at least 1000 beds which will bring the system closer to guaranteeing a spot for everyone in need. The proposal that passed yesterday promises to add an estimated 300 new beds over the next year. That would be better than nothing, but it will not satisfy the need, and still leave hundreds with nowhere to go.
Another point worth addressing is the careless scapegoating of refugees that characterized debate at Council yesterday. The Mayor and a number of councillors blamed refugees’ use of shelters for the pressures on the system. They cited the fact that refugee shelter use has gone up 15% over the past year. While the increase in shelter use is undeniable, the conclusion is utterly unjustified. The current shelter crisis is a product of the worsening housing crisis, low social assistance rates, declining incomes, and the ongoing failure of council to address the shortage of shelter spaces. Shelter use has increased dramatically across all sectors since 2015. The percentage of refugees in the shelter system is comparable to years past. Their numbers were simply artificially low under the Harper regime because of its regressive immigration policies. Blaming refugees for a crisis that all three levels of government are responsible for creating is reprehensible, can only increase xenophobic violence, and must be viscerally opposed.
Yesterday was also the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Homeless women and trans people in Toronto continue to deal with a situation where shelters serving them are full every single night, jeopardizing the lives and safety of the many who are left without a bed. Decisions council made yesterday will not result in any immediate change in that situation.
What transpired at council yesterday was perhaps not unexpected, but made a few things clear. No longer can the City claim that the shelter system is not in trouble. The Mayor and Council are clearly willing to tolerate high levels of human suffering, but the ongoing resistance by homeless people and allies has forced a response. The problem is that the response is a grossly inadequate one and people’s lives are on the line. So let it be clear to the Mayor and his lackeys that this fight will escalate and that we intend to win the measures that are necessary, including the rapid opening of the armouries.
Tuesday, December 5 | 8:30am – Breakfast, 9:00am – Rally, 9:30am – Go into Council Meeting
City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square, in front of ‘Toronto’ sign
Toronto’s homeless shelter system has been dangerously overfull for a very long time, with dire consequences. 70 homeless people died in the first 9 months of this year, many not even reaching the age of 50. The City has thus far refused to add enough shelter capacity and chosen to cram people into warming centres and volunteer-run out of the cold facilities, but even those are overburdened.
Now, following a long fight, the council committee responsible for shelters recently voted unanimously to recommend to City Council that it open 1000 new shelter beds. It also voted 4-1 to call on Mayor Tory to declare a state of emergency and open up the armouries to shelter people this Winter. Both measures are urgently needed and will save lives.
City council will vote on both of these recommendations on December 5 and we need to be there. It is by rallying together that we can win what we need. Join us.
Jessica Hales, a member of OCAP, wrote about the shelter crisis in the Toronto Star today. She cuts apart the City’s claim that it is adding 200 more beds before winter:
Wednesday, September 27 | 10am | 129 Peter Street
(One block south of Queen and east of Spadina)
On Tuesday last week, the ongoing crisis of insufficient emergency shelter space for Toronto’s growing homeless population took a dangerous turn. The city-run Peter Street Referral Centre, a place of last-resort that tries to find shelter beds for homeless people, shut its doors at night even as people kept coming for help. On any given night up to 50 people are forced to spend the night in chairs and on the bare floors at the Centre, subsisting on cookies and juice, because shelters are overwhelmed and staff aren’t able to find them a bed. Last Tuesday, however, not only were there no beds to refer people to, there was no physical space left to let people into the building.
The situation at the Peter Street Referral Centre is reflective of the gross lack of shelter space for the city’s burgeoning homeless population; a fact that is also evidenced by the unprecedented demand for beds this summer, a season where sleeping rough doesn’t always equal death. The official nightly occupancy figures released by the City paint a bleak picture but actually understate the reality. The system is overwhelmed and at the point of breakdown. Even the two 24/7 drop-ins for women have been over-capacity and the location on Adelaide often has had to turn women away. With the shelters in this state and the cold weather looming ever close, it’s apparent that even the option of disgracefully cramming people into substandard out of the colds, warming centres and drop ins will fail to hold up under the strain.
Politicians and bureaucrats can no longer look away and underplay the problem. A system that has been horribly crowded and grossly inadequate is at the point of collapse. Shelter space must be opened. This Wednesday, advocates and people on the front lines will gather at the Referral Centre to speak to the urgency and enormity of the shelter crisis and demand action by City Hall. At least 1000 new shelter beds must be opened to meet the current demand, and in the interim, facilities like gymnasiums and the armories that meet basic shelter standards must be opened up to provide immediate respite to the homeless.
BIA security with Bob Kemp, “Streetscape Coordinator” for the BIA, in St.James Park
The St.Lawrence Market Business Improvement Area (the BIA) has hired private security that patrols the neighbourhood, and has become notorious for harassing poor and homeless users of St. James Park. The security guard ‘bans’ people from the area, enforces made-up rules (no sleeping in the park) and has become a symbol of fear, which is precisely the intent.
We learned about the situation mid-July from a currently homeless park user, Neil Mclellan, who called us while he was being threatened and illegally kicked off from the park gazebo by the guard. We notified the city, called the BIA and sent them a written letter to cease and desist from these practices. When the harassment continued, we issued a poster informing park users of their rights.
Instead of laying off, the BIA escalated the situation. They started confiscating posters OCAP had distributed to park users (which is theft) and threatened Neil with physical violence. Despite being told by the city to cease having security patrol the park, and interact with park users outside of the hours stipulated on their permit, the BIA continued with the status quo this Thursday.
So we are now releasing this statement and video publicly, with a warning to the BIA – back off and stop the illegal private policing of the park and the surrounding area, and the harassment of poor people. If you don’t immediately put an end to these illegal practices, we will start picketing all your member businesses, starting with the ones owned by your board of directors.