For those who don’t know, I grew up in Toronto: actually fairly close to where I live now (the infamous Jane-Finch corridor). I may have kept my home in a variety of places since: across the U.S. and several months in Europe, but I grew up here. When I was young (oh no I sound like my father…!), I was not aware of much of a homeless problem. Now I wasn’t aware of much back then; but on moving to Chicago I suddenly discovered that there are a quite the number of people in the world who have no single place to call home, and who have to live between residences and on the streets. I worked for several years with a community on the Near North Side of that city, where we worked with the homeless and one of the primary modes of outreach was to serve a hot meal to them every day. They were our “dinner guests”. I heard a number of their stories and learned to respect them for who they are… not for what they’ve lost. And all that time I managed to hide my naive perspective that issues regarding “the homeless” were more a characteristic of America than my native land.
I’m less naive now.
It’s not just that I see a lot more panhandlers on street corners and in bars than I ever saw when I was younger. I know times are tougher than when I was a kid, and in general people aren’t as willing to help out their neighbour. But it’s hitting the news: a few days ago we added the 700th name to a memorial for men and women who have died in Toronto while being homeless (The Star, 2013). A study has been commissioned, even as I write (hooray for the studies!), although Council today decided not to “open an emergency debate on homelessness” (Global News, 2013) “until all the facts are in”… facts???…which will certainly not happen until the weather is a bit warmer and the immediate concern of exposure has died down a bit. It’s scheduled for April… which is not quite so cold, even in Toronto.
Already there have been eight deaths this year (Metronews, 2013)… and this is only the eighth week. What other facts do we need?
“Several right-leaning councillors who opposed Vaughan’s proposal to open debate also expressed concern about the plight of the homeless, but argued the issue should go through the usual procedure.” (The Star, 2013) Of course. It’s not like the deaths of homeless men and women are enough to warrant any more concern than other issues that came up in the regular course of the City’s business.
According to Mayor Ford’s staff, “Toronto shelters are currently running just under capacity (average of 96 per cent at capacity) suggesting the system is the right size. How many more empty beds should taxpayers pay for?” As I would expect with Mr. Ford’s perspective, it’s all about the money. Does he honestly think that running so close to being full, the 4% availability is evenly distributed across the city? Or that they’re all equally safe and clean and really available? Obviously something isn’t working. I don’t care how close to capacity the system is running nor how many “extra beds” we might be paying for. What happened to “human dignity”? What happened to being “pro-life”? People are dying out there.
According to one of the councillors, “'”What I hear from the city and from those working on the front lines is different.’ She [Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam ] then spoke of how people are having to go to several shelters a night only to be turned away and having to sleep on the floor of Central Intake on Peter Street.” (Digital Journal, 2013)
“City staff maintain there is no crisis… Mayor Ford and others maintain that resources are adequate. ‘We have enough shelter beds,’ said Ford. ‘A lot of these people don’t want to use these beds, that’s their prerogative. We have more than enough shelter beds, more than enough money for the homeless.'” Sure. One of the infamous myths of the homeless (People in Need, 2009); they’d rather die (literally) than “use these beds”. Mr. Ford obviously has no idea what he’s talking about, and isn’t listening to those who do. It costs too much. Education does.
I even looked up some of the stats, to see if that’s where Mr. Ford’s lack of concern is coming from. Of course they don’t look too bad… at first glance: although they are almost two years old (City of Toronto, 2011) And it only looks passable literally at a glance: the number of people sleeping outdoors had dropped by just over 50% over 5 years. But I think that’s the only encouraging statistic, and it’s a single snapshot. Overall, there were over 5,000 homeless people in the city (#3) estimated at one time (I wonder how they estimated that number?) and over 22,000 different people used shelters the year before (#5). That’s almost 1% of the city’s population (even if the statistic is for the GTA… Greater Toronto Area… . It’s half a percentage point.) One in every hundred people in the city homeless in 2010? That’s awful.
Almost 28,000 households are on “the active centralized waiting list for social housing” (#16). Compare that to the total number of households in the city (#19) and almost 4% of households are on that waiting list. One in twenty-five.
And Mr. Ford doesn’t think we have a problem??
Then again, he doesn’t think they’re among the taxpayers he respects so much.