Marchers hold sign saying Tory's lies cost lives

March on city hall for the homeless shelter crisis

Heads bowed in silence on a cold Tuesday in February, to pay respect to the lives of Toronto’s homeless. Nearly one hundred people crowded the church, while speeches were made regarding their loved ones, that were taken too soon. The mourners shared each other’s shoulders to shed tears, composed of equal parts sadness and rage, regarding the city’s shelter crisis.

Currently, Toronto’s homeless shelters typically reach 90 to 100 per cent capacity every night, holding approximately 6000 people citywide. This overcrowding is forcing shelters to turn away homeless people in need.

Cathy Crowe, a “street nurse,” and well-known social justice advocate in Toronto, was one of the many in attendance. Following the memorial, Crowe was joined by the attendees in hand-delivering a letter to the office of Toronto Mayor John Tory, that enclosed a list of demands, and a request for the city to declare a “state of emergency.”

As temperatures drop and shelters reach maximum capacity, Toronto’s homeless community have no choice but to brace the extreme cold – night after night – which has resulted in numerous fatalities.

Twenty-four hour emergency respite sites are temporary shelters stationed around the city. The purpose of these sites is to offer shelter to the homeless at any point throughout the night, as not all homeless shelters are open 24/7. The issue that arises with this is the tendency for overcrowding. They are constantly exceeding the 90 per cent rule which is resulting in failure to meet city standards.

“A surveillance video was shown to city council, 20 or so years ago, of overcrowding in a shelter where the lights were kept on, just so people wouldn’t step on each other as 4 to 5 people were sleeping in a space that only one person should’ve been,” said Crowe. “This is how the 90 per cent rule came into place and that rule hasn’t been met since 2003.”

Undercover video surveillance in these sites reveals overcrowding, no space for personal belongings, broken toilets and no division or privacy between males and females. “People are sleeping on the floor, and if they’re lucky some might get a reclining chair” says Crowe. These videos were shown to the receptionist of Mayor John Tory by Crowe as the letter was delivered.

Receptionist sign covered in hearts
Marchers placed paper hearts on the mayor's receptionist plaque. Photo credit: Meaghan Sipos

The letter, penned by Crowe and other members of outreach programs,  informed Mayor John Tory of the state in which the homeless shelter crisis is in, and the steps that need to be taken, in order for the fatalities to stop.

Also included in the letter was an immediate increase in shelter beds, as 2000 extra beds are needed to bring the shelter capacities down to , to reduce the capacity in respite sites and demanding something be done about the lack of affordable housing.

“Twenty years later and everything is worse. This is no longer a crisis, this is a disaster” says Crowe.

Greg Seraganian, a manager with the shelter, support and housing administration department for the City of Toronto says that a plan is to be put in place over the next two years where a total of $178 million will be used to open eight new emergency shelters with an average capacity of 80 beds in each. Council has also approved for 1000 new shelter beds by 2020 says Seraganian.

As of 2017, 108 members of the homeless community have died from exposure, with eight of those deaths occurring this year. Homeless advocates like Crowe say this number will only continue to grow until Mayor John Tory decides to do something about this crisis.

As of the date of the march,  Tory had yet to comment on the shelter issue.

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