Toronto needs to declare homelessness a humanitarian crisis and call on the province for urgent assistance.
That was the call being made by front-line workers and advocates at a news conference at city hall Tuesday morning, standing alongside city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam, Gord Perks and Josh Matlow.
“There are easily 400 people still outside and this is not a cold weather story, you must understand that,” said street nurse Cathy Crowe, representing the Shelter and Housing Justice Network.
“We have close to 60 shelters in the city that are really shelters, but we now have over 1,000 people forced to sleep … on floors, on mats, on cots, in situations that are like post-hurricane Katrina is the way I would describe it,” said Crowe.
Extreme cold weather this week drove more than 1,000 people in the city into temporary overnight drop-in, respite and warming centres, which Crowe says are inadequate.
Wong-Tam said 9,000 people are living on the streets right now, as a result of a housing crisis created by the “chronic failure” of every level of government, over multiple administrations to invest in essential services.
“If this was all to have happened overnight, this would be a calamity, but because it happened in a slow-moving fashion over a period of time, it’s almost crept up on us like climate change,” said Wong-Tam after the news conference. “We believe that we have reached this critical point where we need to name it and call it a crisis and move with the determined action of an emergency response.”
Wong-Tam said things have become so dire that an emergency response is required from all levels of government.
Should the province also find itself without the resources to adequately contain the crisis, the group asked that a provincial emergency should be declared so that the resources of the federal government could be brought to bear on the situation.
At a separate event Tuesday, Mayor John Tory, acknowledged the “pressure” the shelter system is under.
“Our city staff do their very best and so do some of the agencies who help us to operate those shelters. They are under pressure. The statistics from last night were about 97 per cent occupancy on a very cold night,” but the bottom line was there were spaces available, said Tory.
The mayor said the focus needs to be on creating housing for low-income Torontonians, including those with mental health and addiction issues, not symbolic declarations.
“I’m devoting all of my energies to try to convince the other governments to support those initiatives for us so that we can move people out of shelters … as opposed to these kinds of declarations that our very own lawyers have told us in the past have little effect of achieving anything on behalf of the people who need our help,” Tory said.
At the city hall news conference, Bob Rose, with the Parkdale Eviction Resistance Network, said the problem is twofold. The first problem is that the city is not building enough housing, social housing and alternatives to the current shelter system are not functioning.
“The second challenge is the displacement of poor people from the inner core, the loss of affordable housing … sudden evictions, the takeover by corporate landlords of neighbourhoods that have traditionally provided affordable housing, Parkdale being one of those,” said Rose.
Perks said he received two calls Tuesday from people who were being evicted from their homes, where they pay rents in the range of $400 to $600, so that the landlords could bring in tenants who could afford to pay more.
He said he wants to start getting phone calls from Torontonians who are willing to pay more taxes in order to fund a better shelter and affordable housing system in Toronto.
“It’s a very simple decision. Do you want a government that will save you $100 to $200 a year or do you want a government that will house people? Every Torontonian should be thinking about this every day until the problem is solved,” said Perks.
Ann Lapenna, an ambassador for Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre, came to hold up a sign reading RIP, to represent one of the four people who has died so far this year.
“I’m concerned about the people not having enough beds, people dying,” she said.
Toronto Public Health recorded 145 deaths of people experiencing homelessness from Jan 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, according to the advocates.
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF