The long winter campaign for a new 200-bed emergency shelter has hit a brick wall. City Hall, to be exact.Despite the pleas and petitions of 70 diverse organizations, Toronto city council has dug in its heels and decided to keep hundreds of homeless men and women on the streets and grates and in the parks, ravines and alleyways of our city.
It's perhaps unnecessary to say it's been a long, cold and devastating winter for people who are homeless. So should they look forward to spring? Spring will provide no relief -- just the dreaded yearly shutdown of the faith-based Out Of The Cold programs that house their "guests" one night at a time in rotation. This means the loss of approximately 200 "mats" -- mats that the city's shelter division has the nerve to count as real shelter beds even though the city doesn't fund them and they don't meet city hostel standards.
During these frozen months, I learned of heroic acts by my street nurse colleagues as they tended yet another tuberculosis case, a shocking number of pneumonias and frostbite. I became more aware of the sense of wrong these nurses feel as they give their patients chemotherapy in the shelters or Out Of The Colds, or when during the Norwalk virus outbreak they provided intravenous rehydration. Most shocking is the normalization of hospital discharge of men and women with plastic locks (heparin locks) left in their veins for intravenous hookup and treatment while they are in the shelters.
You can imagine how heartened we were when our pleas for emergency shelter were heard by people we only dreamed might ever speak out. Actor Sarah Polley, Leafs honcho Ken Dryden and Royal Bank vice-president Charles Coffey wrote to the mayor along with 13 other prominent Canadians to say the situation for homeless people is grave and dangerous. We were truly surprised to learn the mayor ignored their request for a meeting.
The city's one meagre gesture -- the opening of Metro Hall's rotunda as a short-term warming centre -- fell almost cruelly short. Bright lights left on 24 hours a day; operating hours per day quickly reduced from 24 to night hours only; the Red Cross barred from providing hot food; no mats or places to lie down, rest or nap.
Perhaps most telling, when a local relief agency delivered six brand new cots to the warming centre, they were quietly and quickly packed up by city staff after the TV cameras left, not to be seen again.
A new shelter bylaw that has circulated from committee to committee to the mayor's office for close to two years not only incorporates additional restrictions to prevent shelters being opened anywhere except on arterial roads, but also bans them entirely in downtown wards 27 and 28 (the area from University to the Don Valley and from Bloor to the waterfront), where there will be a moratorium.
Persistent police ticketing (especially in those two wards) of homeless people forced to live outdoors continues. One man I know got $1,000 worth of tickets in one day. City-funded In From The Cold van programs are actually prohibited from providing sleeping bags to homeless people.
City hostel services have also refused a formal request to allow a non-partisan medical inspection team including hospital- and community-based physicians, nurses and refugee workers to inspect the shelter system for health hazards.
Leaving city council's recent meeting, I wonder at the lightning speed with which council has just approved a new high-rise on Queen West, ironically named the Sun Life Building. It occurs to me that the only insurance homeless people need is a 200-bed shelter.
When I get off at my streetcar stop, the Ontario government bus shelter ad reads, "There is help available for the homeless. A warm bed, a kind voice, a helping hand." Black magic-marker graffiti over the ad screams, "Kill the homeless." A day later, a well-known native homeless man is found dead at Broadview and Gerrard. He died of hypothermia.
Cathy Crowe is a street nurse and a member of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee.