Just the last week, a story emerged about a 52-year-old Oregon woman dying of hypothermia on the streets of Portland.
The woman was evicted because she couldn’t pay a $328 rent for her seniors apartment unit.
This kind of incident is not unique to just Oregon, though. It happens all too often in Canada and there’s no excuse for it.
The Toronto Public Health department told CBC news last month that close to 100 homeless people died in Toronto’s streets in 2017.
A total of 94 homeless deaths were recorded, with males accounting for the highest number for the year at 68. Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe believes those numbers are low and worries accurate data is not being captured.
“I think the case in point is that right now, this winter, we’ve witnessed 750, possibly higher numbers of people who’ve been coming into the emergency winter respite sites that got opened this winter because of public outcry. So that shows you that all of those people, in the past, were outside,” she told CBC Toronto.
Crowe says the city hasn’t been doing a good enough job of providing shelter for the homeless, especially during winter. And she says urgent steps are needed.
“One of the immediate measures is to ensure that we are providing safe emergency shelters for people because that allows people to come in and not be in the elements, but also to access health support and other social support,” she says.
Other needed measures are more street outreach programs, working more intensively with people that are outside; and creating transitional kinds of shelters that are more culturally appropriate for men, women and transgender people.
But why are Canada’s homeless dying in the streets while tens of thousands of refugees are being found permanent housing in this country? That’s a nagging question.
Just last March, Toronto Mayor John Tory was begging for more resources to deal with swelling refugee numbers.
But when he was pushed about opening the city’s armouries for Toronto’s homeless people, he refused, saying the city’s homeless shelters and the city’s Better Living Centre were good enough for the people in the street.
The mayor said that public service experts inside and outside of city staff had advised him that opening the Fort York and Moss Park armouries would open up “a number of issues,” including inadequate facilities.
He also said that though it wasn’t the main consideration, opening the armouries would be costly. Well, the federal government stepped in and ordered the armouries open Jan. 5. But that’s not the end of the problem.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is planning a rally for Feb. 12 – the day Toronto finalizes its municipal budget. The coalition says 361 new shelter beds are not enough to handle a growing homeless crisis in the city.
“The preliminary budget funds a maximum of 361 new shelter beds this year, less than a quarter of the 1500 that are necessary to deal with their severe shortage. If this preliminary budget passes, then the horror of misery and death homeless people have been subjected to continues. We cannot let that happen,” a poster on the OCAP website says.
“It is important to remember that poverty in Toronto outgrew its shelter system many years ago. It has been two decades since the city council was forced to confront this reality and make a commitment to never let its shelter occupancy exceed 90 per cent, above which spots cannot be guaranteed to those in need,” the poster’s text continues. “Not only did they never meet that commitment, they also ignored repeated alarms sounded by homeless people and their allies about the worsening conditions.
“The consequences of that neglect are unfolding before us. (A total of) 94 homeless people died in 2017, a horrifying average of two every week. Recurrent outbreaks of infectious diseases in shelters have killed multiple people and made many sick. Even the respite centres, which serve as a sub-standard back-up to the overburdened shelter system are overcapacity, with over 700 people sleeping in dreadful conditions.”
So next Monday, a rally will be held at Bay and Queen Streets at the front doors of City Hall. OCAP and anti-poverty advocates will come armed with four demands they want the city to satisfy: 1. Add 1500 new permanent beds in 2018; 2. develop a plan for the respite centres for April 15 and make it public; 3. Improve respite site conditions and 4. Stop scapegoating refugees and people with mental health issues.
It should be clear that Toronto, along with the provincial and federal governments, can’t ignore the problem any longer. If they can find homes for 40,000 refugees from terrorist countries, you’d think they could find places for Toronto’s homeless to sleep.
Jeff Wilkinson is a Senior Politics Reporter at Debate Report covering provincial and national politics, . Before joining Debate Report, Jeff worked on several provincial campaigns including Jack Layton. Jeff has worked as a freelance journalist in Toronto, having been published by over 20 outlets including CBC, the Center for Media and VICE.com.