Toronto’s hidden homeless: The shelter crisis as seen through the eyes of an outreach worker

There are hard-working staff at the city and agencies that offer help, but we are under-resourced. We can administer oxygen and inject naloxone or offer kind words, but we can’t stretch $733 in social assistance to cover $1,200-per-month rent

On a Wednesday night recently, some 1,030 people stayed at drop-ins, respite centres, places of worship and temporary warming facilities in Toronto in an effort to survive. A further 6,899 people stayed in shelter beds.

They had to negotiate long lines, ID checks, arbitrary sleeping-mat lotteries, waiting lists and being put on hold in order to secure a small heated space for themselves.

Hundreds more homeless Torontonians rode TTC buses all night, huddled in a 24-hour Tim Hortons or crawled into sleeping bags beneath soaring bridges on the windswept waterfront. All of them made impossible decisions.

Amidst this instability, systemic violence and cold, there were thousands of acts of compassion: a shared sandwich a valiant search for more warm clothes for a friend a shoulder to cry on grounding words to alleviate a panic attack two friends carrying a third friend to a respite centre just in time for check-in so they wouldn’t lose their mat.

When you are down and out in Toronto, you need to look out for each other. Because each other is all you’ve got.

Yes, there are hard-working staff at the city and agencies that offer help. But we are under-resourced.

We can administer oxygen and inject naloxone or offer kind words, but we can’t create four secure walls, privacy and a locked door out of thin air. We can’t stretch $733 in social assistance to cover $1,200-per-month rent – make that $2,400 to cover first and last month and a credit check.

Housing is not affordable in Toronto, and it’s getting worse every month. Homelessness is destroying people and running people over. Literally.

We’re facing a crisis. We need more shelters that don’t exceed 90 per cent capacity, and we need rent-geared-to-income housing built now. We need the mayor to stop blaming a systemic problem on an individual’s state of mental health.

This is a new iteration of City Council after the recent elections. It would be an ideal moment to rally around an equitable vision for our city, one that is spelled out in bold policy and fair funding decisions. Instead, City Hall is recommending more of the same.

As noted by ACORN in its affordable housing report released last summer, “The Mayor and City Council’s affordable housing plan misses the mark.” In fact, the last four years have been an exercise in missing the mark.

The city’s target, set in 2009, of creating 1,000 new affordable rental homes per year has not been met since Tory came to power in 2014. The city should have built around 4,000 affordable rental homes by now but will have built less than 1,500 by the end of this year, missing its target in 2018 by around 50 per cent.

The mayor has blamed the influx of refugees, many of them fleeing violence, while council quietly shovels millions in the form of tax breaks and zoning decisions to developers.

It’s not refugees who are to blame. A housing system that’s been engineered for the wealthy is forcing people to sleep in the streets.

Toronto needs a housing plan that ensures the building of thousands of units for the people who need them the most. A plan that includes community-based non-profits and where at least 50 per cent of projects include rent-geared-to-income units. A plan with supportive housing and housing designed for people who are transitioning from homelessness.

Anything less will mean more needless suffering and death.

Greg Cook is an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto and a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network.


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