Anger is An Appropriate Response to Poverty and Death on Toronto Streets
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Anger is An Appropriate Response to Poverty and Death on Toronto Streets

What does it say about our city? While some Torontonians make millions off a skyrocketing housing market, homeless deaths have nearly doubled.

On the second Tuesday of every month, friends and family of those who have died on our city’s streets join together on the steps of the Church of the Holy Trinity to acknowledge and mourn their passing. On June 13, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa and I were there to witness the addition of three new names being added to the list of the dead. The names read out were, as is too often the case, John and Jane Does.

The attendees are a colourful group of people with lived street experience, family and friends of the deceased, homeless advocates and allies, and church volunteers. Through poetry and song, rants and statements, they demonstrate their grief and their rage in ways that were both respectful and disruptive. Anger is an appropriate emotion here.

This was not the first time I have attended the memorial service. No matter how many times I go, it will never be a comfortable experience—and that’s as it should be. As a civic leader, speakers call me out for my complicity in governing a society that continues to accept homeless deaths as a norm. A part of me wants to shout out that I am “one of the good guys” trying to bring more resources to the table for housing and homeless initiatives. But I know that there are no good guys here, and that sometimes it is better to just take all the chaotic emotions in silence and reverence and with a listening ear. How can I compare the discomfort I feel at the City’s actions to address homelessness to the discomfort of the individuals for whom street life is a daily reality?

Being uncomfortable when confronted with truth is an important experience, and even a crucial one for people in a position to make change. I think it’s okay for councillors to experience discomfort in the face of criticism. It’s at the point of critical unease that action becomes the only rational option.

At of the start of 2017, Toronto Public Health began collaborating with other health and social service agencies supporting homeless people in Toronto to collect data on homeless deaths. With the support of over 200 community partners, TPH is working to record details such as the individual’s age and gender, and the date, location, and official cause of their death. The agency is releasing quarterly aggregated data, with a more detailed annual report going to Board of Health at the beginning of 2018.

After just three months of reporting, we are already seeing numbers nearly double what was being recorded under the former reporting system. Previous estimates only counted homeless people who had been living in City-funded shelters and did not include people who died while living on the street or at a friend’s place. As a result, the scope of this problem has been undocumented.

What does it say about Toronto that we have not been spurred to action? The value of Toronto properties has gone up 20 to 30 per cent from 2016 to 2017 alone, though only for those who already own property.

The current financial system individualizes the benefits of economic growth, as those who already possess wealth and real estate see their investments grow. Meanwhile, the victims of income stratification suffer from worsened health and other social factors—but these costs are shared by all of us. How can we instead share the benefits of wealth creation? Can we develop a mental framework where housing is as a real human right, and where those that benefit from real estate wealth creation contribute more?

With the help of TPH’s new reporting model, the City of Toronto needs to turn its energy to upstream interventions that will reduce the health and social impacts of homelessness. For years now, activists have encouraged governments to prioritize housing. We are seeing some momentum around the “housing first” idea in cities like Medicine Hat and even Hamilton. There is talk of a National Housing Strategy again for the first time in decades. Toronto can do more, and should, arguably, be leading the way.

There are a number of pieces of the housing puzzle currently in play at the municipal level. First, our emergency shelter system is operating at over 90 per cent capacity. There is demand for the creation of 15 new shelters, and we have plans for four in the next year. Seaton House, our largest shelter, with over 500 beds, will be temporarily closed and revamped as part of the George Street revitalization project starting later this year. Another squeeze on precious shelter space comes from refugees lacking permanent housing. Refugee need now accounts for about 20 per cent of shelter capacity.

Then there is the longer-term strategy for affordable and supportive housing. With a growing wait list of more than 100,000 households and the closure of hundreds of units in disrepair, it’s well known that Toronto Community Housing Corporation is not adequately meeting demand at present. Toronto needs to work with all levels of government to find funding for the state-of-good-repair backlog, calculated at around $2.6 billion. For 2017 alone, we’ll need to find $400 million simply to avoid closing any more units.

In terms of TPH’s role, the agency is concerned with the social determinants of health that contribute to health inequities. Its mandate includes monitoring and assessing the health of the population. With our epidemiologists, TPH is in a good position to identify patterns in the data. This information will inform targeted interventions for TPH and other City divisions.

The hope is that this new data will be a way of honouring the life of the homeless while giving substance to our understanding of their lives and the circumstances leading to their deaths. By being counted, we can respect their memories with a small act of dignity. The official numbers will add strength to the voices of homeless activists and their allies who have tried for so long to speak truth to power.

And for politicians like myself—councillors, mayors, members of parliament—let’s practice active listening. Perhaps the feelings unease and guilt will allow these truths to ignite our passion, creativity, and motivation to act.

Joe Mihevc is a Toronto City Councillor for Ward 21, St Paul’s.