An icy wind blows up Yonge Street as some 30 anti-poverty demonstrators park themselves in front of the Trader's Bank Building on Thursday, February 9.
Mayor John Tory is expected any minute to present his 2017 budget inside the 12th-floor offices of the C.D. Howe Institute, the self-described "independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies."
"Hey, John Tory / Add more beds / Or you'll be sorry!"
Someone says the 12th floor is complaining about the relentless drumming and chanting.
"We're hungry, we're angry / We won't go away / Stop the war on the poor / Make the rich pay!"
Signs dot the gathering, among them "Mayor John Tory's Lies Cost Lives."
OCAP (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) facilitator A.J. Withers doesn't mince words: "We're here because John Tory is hanging out with a bunch of rich people celebrating his rich people's budget, keeping taxes low for rich people while poor people get pushed out to the margins, pushed out into the streets and further into despair and crisis."
According to OCAP, 80 people have died in the last two years as a result of homelessness. The main problem: an overcrowded shelter system. The city's Street Needs Assessment, conducted in 2013, pegged the homeless population in Toronto at just above 5,000.
But the number is likely higher. According to recent media reports, the number of homeless people calling the Central Intake line looking for beds has increased by 13.2 per cent over last year, and the number of individual refugees and families looking for shelter has tripled. Yet the mayor is forcing a further 2.6 per cent cut for all city departments. For an already strapped Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, that will mean a reduction in front-line officers and more people on the street without access to services.
Jessica Hales, a street nurse with Toronto Street Health, takes the mic. She paints a desperate picture of a shelter system in deepening crisis. "Detox beds, mental health beds, violence-against- women beds are full. Women arrive at our office sick and exhausted. They've been searching hours for a bed, and there's nothing to offer but a chair in a crowded drop-in space. Pregnant women sleep on mats on floors in overcrowded spaces that offer no rest, privacy or showers."
Rita Di Biasi, a part-time personal support worker, and her grandson are among the faces in the crowd. Di Biasi says she's been this close to living on the street after losing social housing. "That's why I'm here," she says. "What the hell? Why can't they open up the armouries? I mean, the people need to go somewhere."
Immigration consultant MacDonald Scott, a volunteer with No One Is Illegal, is the next speaker. He mentions Tory's recent press conference reaffirming Toronto as a sanctuary city following Donald Trump's travel ban. His anger is palpable.
"Non-status people are not safe when they're under-housed. Non-status people are not safe when they're living on the streets. Non-status people are not safe when they're in shelters where they can't get the services they need to find safety and status in this city."
Tory finally arrives, but rather than run the gauntlet of protesters out front, he slips in through a side door under police escort.
Last June, Mayor Tory ordered all city departments and agencies to cut 2.6 per cent from their budgets and a total of $27 million from homelessness programs. According to Social Planning Toronto's Budget Watch Report, the cuts, if adopted (final deliberations begin Wednesday, February 15), would carve deeply into the city's social safety net and severely impede delivery of services to the poor and homeless.
Sean Meagher, one of the report's authors, says it's a recipe for disaster.
1. The elimination of the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI), which affects about 24,000 people annually who access homeless services from 24-hour drop-ins or the housing stabilization fund for low-income tenants. Total cut: $18.5 million.
2. Elimination of specialized staff for pest management, cost relief for rent-geared-to-income providers and other social programs at Toronto Community Housing. Total cut: $4.1 million.
3. Reduce TCH's subsidy for improving building conditions. Total cut: $4 million
4. Closure of Downsview Dells Men's Hostel, supportive and transitional housing for men attending addiction treatment. Total cut: $698,000.
5. Staff realignments "to further reduce Shelter, Support & Housing Administration staffing complement." Total cut: $352,000.
It was almost 8 pm on December 14, 2016, when council started debating the Fair Pass Program, which will give TTC discounts to low-income residents as part of the city's TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy, approved unanimously by council in 2015.
But as councillors unpacked the $48 million price tag of the TTC discount (which was eventually adopted and will start in 2018), nobody pointed to the elephant in the chamber: the proposed cuts to the city's poverty reduction agenda.
Outside council chambers, Parkdale-High Park Councillor Gord Perks says the 2017 budget is the most unfair he's ever seen. "We're literally taking money away from the poorest to keep property taxes low for people who are wealthy," says Perks. "It's reverse Robin Hood."
Councillor Joe Mihevc is more optimistic. He says he believes that community organizations and individuals can pressure councillors to keep "pushing the needle in the right direction." But the needed revenue streams to fill the funding holes haven't materialized.
On a bright but chilly December afternoon, Seva Kitchen volunteers are serving sausage stew and rice from the back of their food truck to homeless and low-income people from the neighbourhood around Allan Gardens. When the mercury plummets, anxiety rises, as it does every winter if the city doesn't open more shelter spaces and 24-hour warming centres immediately to get people in out of the cold.
But it's clear that the broken shelter system is not the only defect in Mayor Tory's poverty reduction strategy.
In 2015, he appointed downtown Councillor Pam McConnell deputy mayor to lead the poverty reduction initiative, "a 20-year strategy focused on six key areas: housing stability, service access, transit equity, food access, quality jobs and livable incomes, and systemic change."
McConnell told me in an interview last month that Tory had assured her the cuts proposed in the 2017 budget wouldn't impact the TO Prosperity plan. It hasn't worked out that way. Despite assurances from the mayor, McConnell is beginning her third year working on the poverty reduction initiative without a budget dedicated to the task.
Low property taxes were the centrepiece of Tory's election platform. And low-income people will continue to bear the brunt of cuts.
Says Perks. "At present we're literally taking $19 million that is TCH's money away from them, and instead of using it for repairs, we are using it to keep property taxes low."
Some of the city's budget pressures come from loss of federal and provincial funding. For example, $8.8 million will be not be available to TCH when social housing mortgages expire next year, and losing the provincial rent-geared-to-income subsidy of $2.9 million means budget managers will be looking to snip elsewhere or dip into reserves to make up the negative numbers in 2017.
All the more reason to advocate for an intergovernmental poverty reduction strategy, says Councillor Janet Davis. "It's not our responsibility alone. As we do for highways and other capital infrastructure, we need an intergovernmental social infrastructure plan. That includes childcare, housing and social assistance benefits, which are so low that no one can live on them in this city."
Trinity-Spadina Councillor Mike Layton says some of the budget holes can be plugged from existing revenue streams. But he agrees with Davis that the city will never be able to eradicate poverty on its own.
"The most progressive approach to raising revenue is income tax, followed closely by a sales tax or a similar tax, followed by property taxes, because they're indicators of means," says Layton. "But until the provincial government allows us to implement a sales tax or income tax, we're not going to be where we need to be as a city."
Bill Sinclair manages St. Stephen's Community House, a multi-service agency that serves more than 25,000 people each year in downtown west. Sinclair is concerned that cuts proposed by city departments will wipe out access to homelessness prevention programs.
"Already the shelters are full, but that's not the solution. We need to have outreach, drop-in and addiction-prevention programs that help people keep the housing they have," says Sinclair. "Anything that will prevent people from having to go to shelters and start a spiral of losing all their possessions, all their friendships and connections, losing their jobs and being unable to work."
On Tuesday, February 14, faith organizations set up a mock homeless shelter at City Hall with a soup kitchen, mats and blankets to draw attention to Toronto's housing and homelessness crisis – and to get Tory to rethink some of his budget cuts. It's the first time in 30 years that faith communities have come together in this way to make a plea for more money. Says Joe Abbey-Colborne, director of Faith in the City: "There's no place for people to go."