The Toronto Homeless Memorial will mark a grim milestone this week during a ceremony to remember men and women who died homeless, by adding them to a list that for the first time includes more than 1,000 names.
Memorial services take place on the second Tuesday of each month at the Church of the Holy Trinity, in a small square just west of the Eaton Centre and next to a wood and glass memorial built in 2001. Two of the men to be added to its list died on New Year’s Day, one of a suspected overdose outside the church. At last count, organizers told the Star the list numbered 1,002 lives lost.
At this memorial, as they do each time, music will be played, poetry will be read aloud, friends and community members will be encouraged to speak, and the ceremony will conclude with a communal meal inside the church.
“We want it to be a space where people can grieve. Being able to grieve well is really important for all of us. That is a huge piece of why we try to give names and talk about people’s stories … we want to acknowledge the whole person,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto.
“The other part is to bear witness, to say this is happening in our city.”
Conventional burials can include enormous costs, said Cook, and friends may be unable to travel or simply unaware of the person’s death.
What is documented at the church is derived from word of mouth and numbers released by the city, and it falls short of a comprehensive count. The list includes men and women who died in emergency shelters, or on the street, or from any of the many dangers tied to a lack of stable housing and poverty, including violence, addiction, suicide, untreated mental and physical health issues, exposure and neglect.
“These are real people with real lives and so we try to put in their real names. But there are lots of situations where the city has stats on people who have died in the emergency shelter system that we don’t have information on,” said Cook, explaining why unidentified people are listed as John or Jane Doe. Nicknames are used or swapped out with John or Jane Doe if family asks, Cook said.
Advocates want the city to declare an emergency and open at least 2,000 new emergency shelter beds. That would build on existing direction from council that the city create 1,000 new beds, a move Mayor John Tory voted against in December 2017 at council before releasing an open letter signalling council would reopen the debate after people were unable to access shelter during a brutal cold snap. Tory supported the expedited creation of 1,000 new beds as part of the 2018 budget approved that February, but according to the 2020 budget launched on Friday, only 601 new beds had been created in 2019, with only 143 more planned for 2020.
Mary-Anne Bédard, general manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, said the city has secured the properties required for 780 of those 1,000 emergency beds and the bulk of them will be opened by the end of the year. “This means purchased, leased, they are our buildings,” Bédard told the Star. “We are on a good track.”
Bédard said the city is working on new design standards that will build in the plumbing and infrastructure to allow emergency shelter spaces to be converted to supportive housing as needed. The standards are being refined, but are being applied to any new builds or renovations of existing shelters, she said.
Asked about the memorial, Bédard said it serves as an important reminder of the “people we are serving” and the “sad reality of what happens to people on the margins” and motivates her to think beyond just emergency solutions but towards the longer upstream changes the city wants to make.
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Cook said the new beds will save lives, but the reality is the city needs to find new and aggressive ways to build more supportive and affordable housing.
Toronto Public Health only began tracking deaths tied to homeless in January 2017, following a Star investigation that found Ontario municipalities failed to track those deaths in a comprehensive way, if at all. Prior to that, the only official counts in Toronto were for those using the emergency shelter system.
During 2017, 101 deaths were recorded, followed by 93 in 2018, according to city reports. During the first six months of 2019, 57 deaths were reported by the city, about a third of them women.
The memorial was the vision of late Bonnie Briggs, who Cook said had wanted the memorial to be at City Hall. Prior to that, advocates would march to city hall after each death but, street nurse Cathy Crowe told the Star, but the number of them made that impossible. “The vast majority of these deaths were preventable,” stated Crowe in a news release. “I consider the inaction by all three levels of government criminally negligent.”
Last year the memorial was redesigned. The pages used to lay flat. Now people can flip through sheets of names dating back to 1985.