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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.

Breaking: Homeless advocates, doctors, nurses, and frontline workers staging physically-distanced protest

Primary livestream: facebook.com/OcapToronto/
Backup (in case primary doesn’t work): Zoom | Meeting: 959 1291 4833, PW: 011150

Toronto: With at least 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Toronto’s overcrowded and under resourced shelters, respites and drop-ins, the time to prevent catastrophic consequences for homeless people and shelter staff is running out.

“In a span of two weeks since the first case surfaced, we’ve seen the virus spread to at least seven different homeless facilities, most with congregate living arrangements. Photographic and testimonial evidence from existing facilities indicates that operators cannot implement public health standards necessary to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Over two weeks ago, the City proudly announced that they had procured 1200 hotel rooms but they have filled less than half of those to date,” says Jessica Hales, nurse practitioner who works with homeless people in the city’s downtown east end.

A memo from the City to shelter operators sent following the latest outbreak of COVID-19 at the Willowdale Welcome Centre, indicates that the City still has no clear timeline for when it will move homeless people into hotels. It also states the City has not even tried to procure unused student residences at shuttered colleges and universities (see here and here).

“The City has nearly 5,000 people crammed into existing homeless facilities. Thousands more are sleeping outside in tents because they can’t get into shelters. But the City’s goal this week–a full month after this crisis began–is to have just 550 rooms filled. Thousands of rooms are needed to move homeless people out of danger. Board of health chair Joe Cressy agrees, saying we need ‘one person, one room, one home,’ but the City isn’t anywhere near that and has no discernible plan to get there,” says Cathy Crowe, street nurse and homeless advocate.

“The situation is at a breaking-point. Over 300 doctors and nurse practitioners are calling for immediate COVID-19 outreach testing, physical distancing in all shelters and respites, and the rapid movement of people into hotels, housing and residences. Without this we fear there will be preventable deaths and outbreaks with broad public health implications,” says Dr. Michaela Beder, one of the 313 doctors and nurse practitioners who released an open letter to the Mayor yesterday demanding immediate and rapid action.

“We’ve tried polite persuasion, we’ve produced evidence of dangerous conditions, we’ve held news conferences, but the City still isn’t taking it seriously. So now we’re putting ourselves on the line to demand the City rapidly move homeless people into hotels or housing. Time is not on our side and we can’t just watch homeless people get sick and die. The city must act now,” says Yogi Acharya, organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

The City must commit to a rapid and reliable timeline to accomplish the following:

1. Move all homeless people into hotel rooms or housing.

2. Open day shelters to provide access to food, washrooms, showers, laundry, telephones and service referrals.

3. Implement regular and accessible sentinel surveillance mobile or onsite COVID-19 testing at all shelters, respites, and at daytime and 24 hour drop-ins.

4. Connect all homeless facilities to health care workers to ensure effective and accurate screening.

5. Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to shelter residents exhibiting symptoms and all staff working at homeless facilities.

6. Enable harm reduction services, including witnessed injection, within all hotels and isolation sites.

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.

The Landlord Says What?

Update: The rally has been cancelled because the Landlord and Tenant board has postponed the hearing on account of the COVID-19 outbreak. No new date has yet been set, but once there is, we will reschedule the rally for that date.

Thursday, March 19 | 9 am | 15 Grosvenor Street (Two blocks north of College station)
Facebook Event
Come to the rally at 9am. Stay for the hearing if you can.

The landlord at the Inglewood Arms says the residents of his licensed rooming house are not tenants. He doesn’t believe the roughly 90 people who live in the building have rights under the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA).

This despite the fact that the Inglewood Arms, located at 295 Jarvis street, has operated as a rooming house for over 30 years. Many residents have lived there long term, some over 10 years.

One of those tenants is going to the Landlord and Tenant board to establish the obvious: residents of the Inglewood Arms are tenants and have rights under the RTA. The landlord will be arguing against that.

As you might recall, the tenants at the Inglewood Arms are also taking on a corporate developer who wants to knock down their home and build a 36-storey condominium in its place. Victory at the landlord and tenant board will also strengthen the fight against the developer.

Join us for a rally to support the tenants and build the battle to keep the tenants housed.

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.

Wet’suwet’en Strong: In Defence of Land Defenders

Thursday, Feb 20 | 6pm-8pm| CRC, 40 Oak Street
[Free event with meal, childminding, wheelchair access and tokens]
Facebook Event

[Speakers Series: Free event with meal, child-minding, wheelchair access and tokens]

 

 The people of the Wet’suwet’en nation in northern British Columbia courageously defied a supreme court injunction by blocking Coastal Gaslink (CGL) from building a pipeline through their territories. The company is attempting to build a 670km fracked gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat, but has not secured the free, prior and informed consent of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who remain opposed to its construction.

The hereditary chiefs evicted CGL workers from their territories in early January and called for the construction to cease. The company refused to comply and militarized police (yet again) raided Wet’suwet’en territory earlier this month. The resulting arrests have triggered ongoing protests and rail blockades nationwide. 

Join us to understand why the land defenders are risking their lives to oppose this and other pipelines, how this struggle is linked to those of Indigenous people here, and how we can support.
 
Speakers: Eve Saint, Vanessa Gray and Niloofar Golkar
Eve is a Wet’suwet’en land defender who was one of the four people arrested at the Gitdumt’en checkpoint on Feb 7 when RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en territory. Eve’s father is the hereditary house chief of the Gitdumt’en clan (house of Casiyeh). Eve was based in Toronto but left the city to stand with her father as the hereditary chiefs evicted Coastal Gaslink from Wet’suwet’en territory in early January.
 
Vanessa is a 27 year old Queer Anishinaabe kwe from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located in Canada’s Chemical Valley. As a grassroots organizer, land defender and educator, Vanessa works to decolonize environmental justice research by linking scholarly findings to traditional teachings. Vanessa is a co-founder of Aamjiwnaang & Sarnia Against Pipelines (ASAP), host of the annual Toxic Tour of Canada’s Chemical Valley. She continues to take part in a diversity of tactics such direct action, classroom lectures, co-hosting Toxic Tours and Water Gatherings.
 
Niloofar is a member of Rising Tide Toronto, an organization that has organized actions in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en in Toronto.

Audio from event:

This event is part of OCAP’s monthly Speakers Series. It’s where we discuss issues critical to the success of poor people’s movements.