OCAP | Statements
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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National Housing Day 2020: A crisis like we have never seen, housing is a public health emergency 

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:

  1. Invest in actually affordable housing Obtain vacant buildings to convert into housing. Create 10, 000 units of rent-geared to income housing in the next 24 months 
  2. Immediately enforce an eviction moratorium
  3. Immediately end the criminalization of encampments and issue a moratorium on clearing encampments: No one should be ticketed or harassed by police or security for living in the park
  4. All shelter and supportive housing sites must be user-friendly and include robust overdose prevention and harm reduction services as well as robust covid safety measures 
  5. Until there is enough permanent, safe, dignified, and affordable housing, immediately ensure enough emergency shelters (with COVID safety measures). That means 2000 more rooms before winter comes
  6.  Immediately provide winter survival gear for those in encampments, including fire safety gear, sleeping bags, access to food and water, winter clothing, and heaters.

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

OCAP Supports the AIR-Encampment

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty condemns any attempts or threats to forcibly remove encampments of people from Nathan Philips Square. Since June 19, the Afro-Indigenous Rising Collective and supporters have been peacefully protesting in place at Nathan Philips Square against centuries of colonial and state condoned police violence against Indigenous and African-Canadian communities.

The City of Toronto is saying that the encampments are putting health and safety at risk when, in fact, police brutality against Black and Indigenous peoples puts their health, their safety, and their lives at risk every day.

At the same time, the City deliberately ignores the health and safety of hundreds of homeless people by putting their lives at risk in their refusal to provide safe environments, forcing them to live in crowded shelters where social distancing is impossible to achieve. The reality is that the City politicians and officials are refusing to acknowledge the protesters’ demands to defund/abolish police – demands echoed by thousands of people in anti-racism protests across the world following the murder of George Floyd in the US.

The continued existence of this encampment flies boldly in the face of the City’s efforts to ignore protesters demands. They are hoping that “out of sight-out of mind” will enable their efforts to ignore all demands to defund/abolish police. The City’s concerns that the square is a “public space” that should be shared by all, clearly denies the rights of protesters to share this space. The protesters have been ordered to take down their encampment or face charges of trespassing and $10,000 fines. OCAP supports the right of this Collective to camp in Nathan Phillips square without harassment or threats from the City of Toronto. We support their demands to defund the police and to redirect funds into communities.

Building Resistance in the Pandemic & Beyond

As an organization that has spent decades organizing against the agenda of austerity and the war on the poor in Ontario, OCAP is now trying to take stock of the incredible changes that have been set in motion by the pandemic and the unfolding economic slump it has set off.

This may only be the first wave of the coronavirus and there may be more lockdowns ahead of us. Huge numbers of people have been thrown out of work during the present lockdown but it is clear that many will not go back to work and that a period of mass unemployment is now underway. After the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of tenants will face the threat of eviction, the food banks will not be able to cope with the levels of hunger and the homeless crisis will intensify greatly.

We can also expect to see a huge assault on workers rights, an austerity driven attack on public services and an intensification of the threat of xenophobia and racism, both in the form of government policies and from the far right. Already we are seeing resistance on this front, as migrant sex workers organize against increased police powers, and migrants fight for access health care and benefits. Clearly, the pandemic has opened the door to an economic crisis of capitalism and to political attacks on a scale that can be compared to the Great Depression.

Even before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited an uprising in the US, along with a ‘defund the police’ movment, that has now spread to Canada, there was already resistance in the face of the pandemic. ‘Essential’ workers on the front lines have challenged unsafe conditions,with hundreds of work refusals in Ontario. Tenants have organized rent strikes and other actions. There has been determined community action to challenge the abandonment of homeless people as the coronavirus
spreads among them. However, it’s clear that we are up against a completely changed situation and that small scale and limited resistance will not be enough. A recent EKOS poll in Canada had 73% of those surveyed saying that they wanted to see “broad transformation of our society” and major social reforms that prioritize “health and well-being”after the pandemic lockdown. The failings of the austerity damaged healthcare system, the unforgivable loss of life in for profit care homes, the obviously disproportionate degree to which poor and racialized people have been impacted by COVID-19 have produced a widespread sense that things must change. After the lockdown ends and, in conditions of economic crisis, governments try to impose the burden on working class people, the possibility of mass social resistance will be very great. In OCAP, we think we need to start preparing for that changed situation now.

If the kind of fightback the unfolding situation requires is to emerge, it is going to have to come from the base in society. Workers and communities under attack are going to have to give the lead. The struggles for survival will require a deeply rooted level of solidarity and a high level of organization. How can we work to lay the foundations and begin to take the actions that can give a lead in this?

OCAP is interested in hearing from organizations and community members that share our sense that we need to prepare for huge struggles in the coming months. We would like to begin the discussions and create the spaces where we can take forward the task of organizing in the face of this unprecedented crisis. Please let us know if you are interested in being part of this.

Supporting Black & Indigenous People & De-funding Police

Anti-Black racism, condoned by the settler colonial state, is a life-threatening systemic assault against the lives of Black people. It urgently requires robust and broad-based resistance.

The murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, of D’Andre Campbell in Brampton and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet while alone with police presence, are just a few of the most recent examples of policing’s deadly impact on racialized people. Uprisings in response to their deaths call for our racist society to be restructured into one that is just.

As an anti-poverty organization we know how anti-Black and anti-indigenous racism are is often reflected in the attacks on poor people., Disproportionate numbers of homeless people living in shelters and in encampments are Black and Indigenous. Poverty is racialized. The 2016 Census showed that 20.8% of peoples of colour in Canada are low-income compared to 12.2% of non-racialized people. Over 90% of Toronto’s Indigenous population lives in poverty. Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are far more likely to experience homelessness, food insecurity, and incarceration than white people. Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour living in poverty bear the brunt of this violence. The police are a weapon in this war, and so, we support defunding the police. OCAP would ideally like to see the institution of police replaced with one that would best serve all of society, but for the time being would at the least like to see the police significantly defunded.

OCAP stands in unequivocal solidarity with the current uprising and the Movement for Black Lives that has helped to mobilize it. We emphatically affirm that Black Lives Matter. Until all of us are free, none of us are.

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.

Statement on Bill 168

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has a longstanding history of challenging all forms of racism, including antisemitism. On this basis, we utterly reject and oppose Bill 168, the misleadingly called Combating Antisemitism Act.

The IHRA definition, that the bill bases itself upon and seeks to promote, is not primarily focused on responding to hatred and bigotry that is directed against Jewish people but, rather, on silencing criticism of the state of Israel. Most of the examples it provides are aimed at those who would speak out in solidarity with the Palestinian people, as they resist occupation and banishment from their homeland.

If the Ontario government is bound by the requirements of Bill 168, it will treat expressions of support for the just struggles of the Palestinians as if they were examples of hate speech. At one and the same time, the rights to free expression and academic freedom will be severely curtailed.

The great irony is that antisemitism is actually on the rise in many countries, including Canada. However, it is coming overwhelmingly and dangerously from the racist far right. As a form of bigotry, it exists within the broader framework of white supremacy. Bill 168 deflects attention from this while trying to stifle the voices of Palestine solidarity.

We urge you reject this bill but must also make clear (and we know we speak for many others in this) that no legislation passed at the Ontario Legislature or by any other body will ever prevent us from expressing our full support for freedom for Palestine.

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.

Response to the Ford Governments Changes to Social Assistance

The Provincial Conservative government of Doug Ford announced three significant changes to social assistance today:

  1. They are cutting in half the 3% increase in social assistance rates scheduled to come into effect in September this year. Progressive changes to regulations scheduled to be implemented this fall have also been “paused,” and will likely be canceled.
  2. The 3 year basic income pilot program, which started last year, is now being canceled and “wound down.”
  3. A series of sweeping changes to social assistance are currently under review and will be announced within the next 100 days.

We have three things to say in response:

  1. The scheduled 3% increase passed by the Liberals was woefully inadequate, but it would have marked the second time in almost a quarter century that social assistance income would have risen above the rate of inflation. Instead, the 1.5% cut will yet again plunge social assistance below the rate of inflation, making social assistance recipients even poorer.
  2. We have been critical of the Basic Income pilot project, but canceling the pilot a year after it was underway demonstrates a reckless disregard for the lives of nearly 4000 people on the pilot who planned their lives on the assurance of having a set income for 3 years, and who must now scramble.
  3. The sweeping changes to social assistance that are being ominously hinted at are likely to be the same brand of ruthless right-wing reforms we saw under Mike Harris. We can expect dramatic restructuring of social assistance that cuts supports, forces those on social assistance, including disabled people, into the most exploitative jobs, and increases punitive surveillance and “fraud” crackdowns of the poorest people in this province.

Clearly, this is the war on the poor component of the Doug Ford agenda of neoliberal austerity. The Tories are forging a punishing regime of social abandonment that creates misery and utter desperation. It is the cutting edge of their attack and a compelling reason why we must unite and build a movement to defeat this Government and all it stands for.