Last week, a twenty eight year old homeless indigenous man perished in Toronto, after staff at a drop in had to tell him that the facility was too overwhelmed to provide a place of shelter for the night.
For months, homeless people, advocates and service providers have been telling Mayor John Tory that the shelter system is hopelessly overcrowded and that a death was all but inevitable. We were so sure of this horrible reality in OCAP that we had a contingency plan to hold a memorial at Tory’s luxury condo in the event of a death. Last Sunday, we had to do just that.
Unbelievably, the response of the Mayor’s office to the tragedy has been to double down on the evasions. Rather than to open the federal armouries or some equivalent location, as the community had demanded, to try and save lives, Tory and his entourage have ducked and weaved to try and deflect the blame they can’t escape.
A statement responding to our action at the Tory residence, sought to focus attention on the ‘dangers of fentanyl.’ The young man did, indeed, die of an overdose that occurred in the context of a crisis across Canada that all levels of government need to be held accountable for. However, there is simply no denying that the he was put back out on the streets because this City fails to provide even the most basic shelter from the elements.
The statement also peddled the old line that there were beds available that night and claims the men’s system was ‘only’ at 95% capacity. Never mind that the City’s own policy is based on the notion that occupancy levels of above 90% render the shelters impossible to endure and drive people out. Even the shameful 95% figure is understated and attributable to the timing of the bed count and is obtained by ignoring all those who have been turned away when they tried to find a space and by disregarding all those who have been barred from the shelters because the overcrowding creates unbearable tensions that lead to outbursts and incidents.
The young man was offered a referral to a warming centre in another area of town, the Mayor’s Office is anxious to point out. It would not have opened until later that evening and is notoriously hard to access. The fact is that, denied a spot in a place where he knew the people and could feel some sense of security, he left and shortly thereafter lost his life. Behind all the prattle about all the ‘available options,’ is the simple reality of what took place. The shelter system is in such crisis and so utterly overwhelmed that the man who died and nine others beside him could not be taken in by a facility that operates (through no fault of its dedicated staff) in violation of the City’s own shelter standards. It provides 34 mats on the floor and 16 ‘additional spaces.’ If you don’t get a mat, then a chair or bare floorboards are what you’re looking at. We have reached the point where people have to go on a waiting list in order even to obtain shelter under such inhumane conditions.
The Mayoral statement points out that the death was not connected to budget cuts that were, ironically, being voted on the very night the man died. That’s not untrue in that the death took place before the system was eroded even further but it’s not much to boast about. While the statement crows about 290 beds that will ‘come online’ sometime this year, it is silent on the fact that the system lost 169 beds between October of 2015 and the same month the following year. Other City documents tell us that the shelters will provide 4,154 beds each night in 2017 while Toronto’s homeless population was put at 5,213 in 2013 and this has certainly grown. Indeed, calls to central intake looking for shelter space increased by 13% from 2015-2016, and the number of individual refugees and families looking for shelters more than tripled.
The shabby evasions and distortions coming out of the Mayor’s office can’t overcome the reality of a shelter system that is in a state of utter crisis. If Tory fails to open space and take pressure off the system, there will be more deaths. We intend to prevent that and hold this Mayor accountable. Stop pretending things are under control and open the armouries immediately.