After 14 years of uncompromising advocacy on behalf of the homeless, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee is shutting down.
Its closure marks the end of one of the city's most successful grassroots activist groups, but its many victories over the years belie the fact that it wasn't supposed to last this long in the first place.
The organization was originally envisioned as a temporary body, its members bound together in 1998 by a simple question: how could the government mobilize so swiftly to help those left homeless by natural disasters like the Quebec ice storm, and yet tolerate day after day the social disaster of chronic homelessness in cities across the country?
At the time, Canada's long-simmering housing problems had suddenly become starkly visible, thanks to an economic recession and the downloading of responsibility for the problem to municipalities ill-equipped to deal with it. People were dying on the streets.
"When we faced the fact we were having homeless deaths [and the return of diseases like] tuberculosis, we brought up the issue and gathered the community, and got responses," recalls Beric German, who founded the group along with the likes of ‘street nurse' Cathy Crowe, lawyer Peter Rosenthal, Gaetan Héroux of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, businessman David Walsh, and several others.
After its first meeting in 1998, the TDRC's first act was to declare homelessness a national disaster. Soon after, Toronto city council followed suit, as did nine other major Canadian cities. The pressure led Jean Chretien's government to create a national emergency housing fund a year later , and since then successive governments in Ottawa have devoted money to affordable housing, including a $1.4-billion program announced in 2006 that is still being used today.
The TDRC's legacy is also assured at the local level. Toronto's hot- and cold-weather alerts, emergency beds at Moss Park and Fort York armories, and current shelter standards can all be traced back to the group's advocacy. Its members were instrumental in defending the rights of the "Tent City" residents and finding them secure housing after they were evicted from their waterfront encampment.
Perhaps their most iconic achievement was the establishment of a memorial to homelessness deaths at the Church of the Holy Trinity in the heart of downtown. Now sadly bearing the names of 600 people, the memorial is a testament to those who have died on our streets, but also to the TDRC's blunt determination to expose the deadly consequences of ignoring the country's housing crisis.
"They were focused," remembers NDP MP Olivia Chow, who as a city councillor worked with TDRC to put homelessness on the agenda at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. "They called homelessness what it is - it's a disaster. Let's not mince words. No one in a rich country like ours should sleep on the street."
So with such a record of success, why is TDRC calling it a day?
In short, its leaders aren't young anymore.
"There's a tremendous amount of energy involved. We have an aging steering committee, and quite simply, we must pass the torch," says German. "We pat ourselves on the back and say we did well, but the main task must be passed on to younger people."
German stresses that no one should interpret TDRC folding as a sign that homelessness is any less of a problem than it was a decade-and-a-half ago. He notes that across the country 300,000 people become homeless every year, and there is still no national homelessness strategy. At best, he says, TDRC "held the line" on homelessness.
Although the committee is now disbanded, German and other members will no doubt continue to advocate for society's vulnerable however they can. At the time of his interview with NOW, German was drafting a letter to the city protesting the imminent closure of the men's Schoolhouse Shelter.
And going forward, the group's determination to respond to the homelessness crisis with the urgency they felt it demanded will likely serve as a model for those who take up the committee's work.
"We were dealing with life and death issues," says German. "We weren't there to make a statement, we were there to make things happen."