Homeless bring “slice of reality” to Mayor’s door

September 27, 2017

The “gala screening” of the new film on the crisis in Toronto’s shelter system, Bursting At The Seams, drew a crowd of 150 (many homeless) people to the chilly sidewalk outside Mayor John Tory’s Bedford Road condo address on Thursday, November 10.

“People are on the streets courtesy of [Tory] and his shelter system,” John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) tells NOW, “so we thought it appropriate to come here and counterpose that to the luxury Tory lives in.”

As free food was served, a crew of drummers let the whole neighbourhood know something was happening. But most passersby, like the young man with Harvard sweatpants and a couple with Holt Renfrew shopping bags, walked right past, not stopping long enough to catch the speeches or the 20-minute film.

Those who did watch got, in Clarke’s words, “a slice of reality” about a shelter and housing system where people can stay on wait lists for housing for years, and run-down shelter facilities remain persistently above the 90 per cent occupancy limit set by council. In September, shelter occupancy was at 95 per cent, raising fears as winter comes of more people being left out in the cold.

In the film, Tracy Heffernan of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario and an adjunct faculty member at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, gives a historical perspective to the narrative, noting that “people think homelessness is something we’ve always had and we’ve had it to this degree. But it’s not true at all.”

She says welfare cuts in the mid-1990s, the freeze on the minimum wage and increases in the cost of rental accommodation accelerated homelessness and poverty in Toronto.

Statistics reinforce Heffernan’s point. Reported homeless deaths had a significant uptick starting around 1995, the year Harris came to power provincially, then peaked in the early McGuinty years before declining. Fast-forward to the present, when the rapid pace of condo development is replacing affordable housing and pushing more poor and homeless people to the suburbs, further away from needed services. Anti-poverty activists say the death toll has been rising as a consequence.

Mayor Tory, who was not at the film screening, said at a press conference earlier in the day that the event was within the bounds of allowable protest. He did add, however, that he thought it was “unfair – more so to my neighbours.”

Kelly O’Sullivan, who acted as emcee at the screening, took exception to the mayor’s comments. “I’ll tell you what’s unfair: not having enough food to eat in a city of wealth and privilege; not having a roof over your head in a city of wealth and privilege; getting eaten alive by bedbugs in a shelter!” O’Sullivan declared to the cheering crowd.

For Tory, the upper echelons of wealth are familiar territory. While he is no longer involved in the day-to-day business, the former Rogers CEO continues to help manage the Rogers family fortune.

Tory has made poverty reduction a focus of his administration, appointing Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell to develop and implement an anti-poverty strategy.

But Clarke says in an interview later that Tory is “presiding over a crisis of homelessness” and has “made clear [that] austerity is a priority for him.”

Clarke notes that “the crumbling social housing stock and shelters are not exempt” from the 2.6 per cent cut Tory has ordered from all city departments.

Pressed on what is being done to prepare the shelter system for this winter, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office highlights, in an email statement to NOW, plans to reopen a shelter in Scarborough that at one stage had 60 beds.

But the city lost 169 shelter beds between March 2015 and September 2016, according to an October staff report. The planned shelter in Scarborough, along with proposed motel space and a new emergency warming centre, may not make up for that lost capacity.

The mayor’s office also cited a recent decision allowing staff to immediately add new beds to the system without council approval.

But Clarke isn’t convinced. “New beds where? Where are these shelters?” Without new spaces, this new ability to add beds is, according to Clarke, a sign that Tory’s administration is “prepared to cram even more people” into already overcrowded shelters. “They need to open new spaces.”

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