Categorized | Editorial

Find emergency shelters for the homeless

Posted on 21 December 2016 by admin

It should be no surprise that it’s cold outside. It is, after all, mid-December in Toronto. Winter officially starts on Wednesday.

That’s why it’s so surprising and disturbing that the city has been scurrying once again in the midst of extreme cold weather alerts to find enough emergency beds to shelter homeless people.

Perhaps a little planning might be in order?

We should not have to wait until December to realize that no one in Toronto should have to suffer, and perhaps die, out in the cold because there aren’t enough emergency shelters. Nor need we wait until the city is in the middle of a polar vortex to plan for enough geared-to-income housing so that people don’t end up on the street in the first place.

But we do.

The city has known there is a shortage of shelters for the homeless for years. A 2013 survey found there were 5,000 homeless people in the city, but currently there are only 4,300 beds. And Toronto’s wait list for subsidized housing stands at a stunning 172,087, forcing some people onto the streets.

Mayor John Tory says he gets it. “In the end, shelters are no place for any citizen of Toronto to be for more than a night in an emergency,” he says. “We need to provide proper housing for people.”

So why, then, were the city’s shelters for women, youth and families all filled past their capacity rate of 90 per cent last Thursday. Shelters for families were completely full.

And why was it left, once gain, to homeless advocates to take to the streets and march through a snowstorm to focus attention on what they call a lethal lack of emergency beds. “We are abandoning people,” said Cathy Crowe, a longtime activist and street nurse.

She is calling on Tory to open the armouries at Fort York and Moss Park as shelter spaces until more suitable emergency spots can be opened. They have been used four times in the past, “sheltering hundreds and undoubtedly saving countless lives,” Crowe points out.

The mayor does not consider the armouries “adequate” or “appropriate” for emergency shelters, his office says. Instead, the city is working to open shelter spaces in “more appropriate places for vulnerable people,” such as vacant schools.

Whatever the solution, the city needs to find it fast. As Crowe points out, the impact of sub-zero weather on the body is “devastating” when people are hungry, dehydrated and not dressed properly.

Indeed, two years ago on Jan. 13, 2015, fire tore through a makeshift hut in Scarborough where Grant Faulkner, a homeless man, was sleeping. He died tying to stay warm with a propane heater.

We don’t know whether the father of three was sleeping outside because he was turned away from a shelter. But we may get some answers at the end of 2017 when a coroner’s inquest into his death will be held and may shine a much-needed spotlight on the crisis of homelessness.

In the meantime, while the pressure is on Mayor Tory to resolve the immediate crisis, in the long term homelessness must be addressed by Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

The federal government, which abandoned its role of financing rent-geared-to-income housing in 1993, should get back into that field, and the province should do more to help out, too.

It doesn’t just make sense from a humanitarian perspective. In addition to misery and deaths, advocates estimate it costs $7 billion a year not to deal with homelessness by providing affordable housing, a substantial portion of which is related to hospitalization and incarceration.

Tory must act quickly to resolve this year’s emergency shelter crisis. Then he must plan ahead with the provincial and federal governments to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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