One weekend while delivering food to a remote tent encampment on the outskirts of Toronto, I came across three tragedies. A fire had destroyed one of the tents and all of the possessions of the couple who lived there, but mercifully no one was harmed or killed. There was a second resident, whom I hadn’t seen since he was admitted to hospital in early March, whose foot was black with frostbite. On that weekend, I found out that part of his foot had been amputated. A third resident’s leg was swollen to twice its normal size and the skin was falling off in scaly patches. He refused to go to the hospital. Seeds of Hope, a charity that serves people experiencing homelessness, sent a street nurse to check on him. Fortunately the nurse was able to save his leg and possibly his life.
People on the streets keep dying – almost four a week. The deaths are so commonplace that the city tracks them on a gruesome “Deaths of People Experiencing Homelessness” dashboard. There are 8,500 people without homes in Toronto. Almost half have some combination of mental health issues, addiction or intellectual disabilities.
Everyday, street nurses enter this ongoing crisis and save lives. But 43 of them have just been fired due to the Ford government funding cuts to the Ontario Ministry of Health.
For two years, I’ve been delivering meals to seniors, to people in supportive housing and to people without homes. Last Sunday I came across a woman who had used fentanyl the night before. She was crashing and was desperate to have a place to sleep. I phoned central intake, which offered a bed in a shelter. She knew the shelter and was afraid of some of the people in it, but she decided to go to the shelter anyway. I sent her in an Uber. I asked her: if I could find her a residential treatment program, would she go? She said yes. I spent the next two days looking for a place, but none were available.
It’s incredible to think about how callous our society has become. We have a homelessness crisis compounded by an opioid epidemic and people dying on the streets every day. The City of Toronto is often criticized for its handling of this crisis, but the real blame lies with the provincial and federal governments.
The roots of today’s crisis date back decades. In the early 90s, the federal and provincial governments were building 10,000-15,000 affordable housing units per year – mixed income co-ops, public housing and supportive housing for people with mental health and addiction issues. In the mid-90s, the federal Liberals cancelled the federal housing program. The Ontario government then downloaded it onto the city. Since then, almost no affordable or supportive housing has been built.
The reason so many people with mental health challenges and intellectual disabilities are homeless dates back to the early 80s, when federal and provincial governments began closing large residential mental health institutions like the Queen Street Mental Health Centre and transitioning people into group homes in the community. Then the governments stopped building group homes.
If failing to provide housing for the most vulnerable wasn’t enough, Premier Mike Harris cut Ontario Works (welfare) rates by 21.6 per cent in 1997, arguing that people could survive on a “welfare diet” of pasta without sauce and dented cans of tuna. Successive Conservative and Liberal governments since then have let inflation reduce it further. If you’re wondering why we have a homelessness crisis, the Ontario Works rate of $733 per month is not even enough to rent a room.
Greed compounded the growing homelessness crisis. In the 90s, pharmaceutical companies like Purdue began aggressively marketing opioids for pain relief, downplaying the addictive nature of the drugs and creating the opioid epidemic that killed more than 5,000 Canadians in 2021.
Since then, federal and provincial governments have consistently refused to make the investments to bring an end to homelessness, to provide supportive housing for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health challenges and to provide the treatment necessary for people to overcome addictions.
As an MPP, I often receive complaints from residents and business owners about the homelessness crisis. And they are absolutely right. We have people living in crisis and too often dying in our streets. Communities and businesses are left to deal with the impacts.
But community members and businesses alone cannot fix the crisis created by provincial and federal governments. Only the federal and provincial governments can solve it. And right now, the Ford government is firing 43 street nurses.
Chris Glover is an NDP MPP representing Spadina-Fort York in the Ontario legistalture.