Cathy Crowe

 

 

 

Newsletter No. 31 
February 2007

 

I've been a street nurse in Toronto for 18 years. In the spring of 2004 I received the Atkinson Economic Justice Award which permits me to pursue, for up to three years, my passions for nursing and working on homelessness and housing issues.  In this newsletter I hope to report on my activities, create a link to a broader group of individuals who care about these social issues and encourage critical debate.


Further information about subscribing to the newsletter is found below.  I want to hear from you - about the newsletter, about things that are happening in the homelessness sector (what a sad term!), and about good things which will provide inspiration for all of us.

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Dismantling downtown

New condos, new street furniture, new bus shelters and bench designs that prevent anyone from lying down, a new Yonge and Dundas Square and plans for a revitalized waterfront - the shape, look and feel of downtown Toronto is changing dramatically.  Who is allowed to live downtown is also being redesigned. Homeless people and the poor are no longer welcome.

There is a growing suspicion that Philip Mangano (aka George Bush’s homelessness ‘Czar’ and the architect of the American ‘10 year plans’ to end homelessness) and elements of the ‘New York model’ (homeless counts, by-laws prohibiting homeless people or panhandling in certain areas, and street-sweeps i.e. “streets into homes” programs) have influenced this new Toronto look. The planning and funding of homeless services are now focused on removing the visible homeless from the streets while at the same time reducing shelter beds, limiting emergency services for people who are homeless such as during extreme hot or cold weather, and seriously under funding homeless services such as day shelters and meal programs.

Although there are examples of new programs that meet homeless and poor people’s needs (Tent City Rent Supplement program, Sherbourne Health Bus, ID Safe, etc.) there is a much longer list of valuable and well-used programs and initiatives that have been dismantled - for various reasons they have disappeared.


Missing

As I walk the downtown streets this is what I no longer see.

(Note – usage/person capacity are in brackets)

  • Central Neighbourhood House (CNH) drop-in, which originated in the 1970s on Ontario Street was relocated to Parliament Street in 1995, then was shut in 1997 (400+). It was relocated to Shuter and Bond and then relocated to 60 Richmond East in 1998. ‘60 Richmond' as it became known, a drop-in and meal program  closed – in 2004 (100 persons + and 200 meals per day);
  • Salvation Army drop-in on Victoria St. – closed in 2000 (80+);
  • Dixon Hall Men’s Shelter – closed in 2000 (40+);
  • Tent City – evicted in 2002 (120+);
  • Street City – closed in 2003 (100+);
  • Rendu House ( St. Vincent de Paul) – closed in 2004 (20);
  • Mrs. Sinclair’s clothing store in basement of All Saints – closed in app. 2001;
  • St. Andrew’s Out of the Cold overnight –closed  in 2005 (100-120);
  • Metropolitan United Church emergency shelter operated by CNH – closed in 2005 (50+);
  • 321 Jarvis St. emergency shelter operated by CNH – closed in 2005 (50);
  • 501 Queen Street West detox – closed in 2006 (20 male and female beds).

The impact of these closures has been cumulative: the stress of forced relocation, more crowding, and food and supply shortages. It is no longer possible to ignore the pattern.


Going, going, gone:
Winter 2006 / 2007 more dismantling (See Appendix A for details - PDF)

Front-line workers and homeless people became even more alarmed in the Fall of 2006 when it became evident that a number of valuable programs were not planning to open or continue their services.  This has further gutted the services available for poor and homeless people in downtown Toronto .  Even more alarming is that the pattern does not appear to be on the radar of city officials, planners or funding bodies.  In fact there is barely any reference to the needs of homeless people in the City of Toronto ’s 2006 Official Plan.

As outlined in Appendix A, over 400 overnight shelter spaces have either been eliminated or are scheduled for closure within the next few months.  There is widespread concern regarding the future of 100-200 day shelter spaces.  In addition, 18 supportive housing units were closed.

There are numerous reasons for these closures including: funding constraints for both operational and capital costs, the lack of a city or provincial funding envelope that an organization can access, plans to develop housing or businesses at the location, land speculation, philosophical program changes by an organization, staff stress and burnout, NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) pressures, and lastly but perhaps most importantly political disinterest.

Canada's largest city is often referred to as ‘Toronto the Good’. What do we see when services are stripped from communities and people in need?  


  1. Not enough shelter. Nowhere to be referred to.

At the street level it is evident that the dismantling of services for homeless people has made existing services (both funded and volunteer) more strained and harder to access. 

Since late 2006 homeless men and women have reported greater difficulty accessing a real shelter bed (i.e. a shelter/hostel bed that is funded by the City and operated either by the City or a non-profit in accordance with the City of Toronto Shelter Standards ).

www.toronto.ca/housing/pdf/shelter_standards.pdf

Homeless people and volunteers report more crowded conditions in the volunteer-run Out of the Cold facilities (a volunteer, faith-based program that offers single night shelter spaces in church or synagogue basements during winter months).  Many homeless people report being turned away when an Out of the Cold site is filled and that they often are forced to wait several hours before transportation can be arranged to bring them to another shelter location. www.ootc.ca

The fact that the City continues to rely on close to two dozen volunteer faith-based programs as emergency shelter, forcing hundreds of people to move nightly to secure basic shelter (the United Nations would call these people internally displaced persons) should be testament itself that there is not enough shelter in the city.

Homeless people who have gone to the City’s emergency shelter at 110 Edward Street describe inhumane conditions in the referral centre at this site which in practice functions as an overflow emergency shelter. They report:

  • a backlog of people who are stuck there, unable to be referred to another shelter because of lack of space;

  • the overflow of people into a crowded room, normally used as an eating area, where they spend the night while an entire floor sits empty above them;

  • inadequate provisions for people’s basic needs: no beds, cots, mats or enough blankets, leaving people no choice but to sleep on the floor, a window ledge or in a chair at a table;

  • inhumane overnight conditions which include: lights on all night, and a 6 a.m. departure time which leads to insufficient sleep and resulting health problems;

  • violent, tense and anxiety inducing conditions.

Images, depicting some of these conditions were captured for Toronto Disaster Relief Committee in January 2007 on secret video by a homeless man.

Background information on inadequate shelter conditions is available on Toronto Disaster Relief Committee’s web site – for example the  2003 ‘The Shelter Inspection Report’ on www.tdrc.net


 
  2. Not allowed to help - organizations and workers prohibited from providing life-saving relief.

A shift in funding and program direction has had a direct impact on street outreach services.  Agencies that have outreach teams, many of which include vans, are functioning with less financial resources and under more restrictive criteria.  This phenomenon was first noticed in 2001 with ‘Off the Street, Into Shelter’ (OSIS), a provincially funded program, administered by the Shelter, Housing and Support Division of the City of Toronto .  The purpose of the program was to help homeless people on the street to access shelter, housing, Out of the Colds, drop-ins and other homeless and mainstream programs and services, and in the process move off the streets. Funding criteria included a stipulation that agencies could not provide survival supplies – sleeping bags, blankets or hot meals to people who are living outside.  In 2003 the OSIS funding criteria stated: 

High-support street outreach funded through Off the Street, Into Shelter cannot include direct survival supports (e.g., food, clothing, sleeping bags), working with the hidden homeless (e.g. housed but doubled up) or assisting people already in shelters or housed.” 

The provision of relief supplies that are life-sustaining for homeless people is no longer funded by any City program including ‘Streets into Homes’ or City departments such as Shelter, Support and Housing.  The explanation given to the community and homeless people is that supplies such as sleeping bags ‘enable’ people to remain outside. Agencies are forced to rely on donations and charity for items such as sleeping bags and ration them.


 
  3. Not enough sleeping bags

In January 2007, the Bargains Group with support from Hockey for the Homeless launched the distribution of survival kits, which included personal hygiene products, sleeping bags and snacks.  4800 survival kits were requested by 90 agencies.  A total of 1140 survival kits were prepared, meeting less than one-quarter of the demand.

Homeless people consistently report that even in some Out of the Cold programs and city shelters there is an inadequate supply of blankets or sleeping bags.


 
  4. Not enough food

The reduction in food programs has increased the demand for food in remaining agencies such as the Friendship Centre.  Homeless people also report not enough food in some Out of the Cold programs.  One downtown drop-in recently reported providing 300 meals in the morning, a doubling of their numbers.  The high-rise downtown community of Moss Park is still struggling with the closing of their local and only grocery store.


 
  5. Not enough detox beds

Front-line workers remain frustrated with the difficulties of finding a detox bed when someone is ready to enter detox. The entire detox at 501 Queen Street West was recently shut, creating a loss of 20 beds. The future of the remaining beds at 16 Ossington detox remains uncertain.  Homeless people who require this type of assistance frequently end up in emergency rooms or holding cells in police stations.


Not part of the Official Plan

Toronto’s Official Plan promotes the importance of social infrastructure, planning equity and access. It states:

“Addressing the quality of life and health and well-being of Toronto’s communities requires effective and co-ordinated planning, the involvement of all human services sectors and investment in a comprehensive social infrastructure.  Social infrastructure includes the whole system of government and community resources, programs, facilities and social networks that contribute to people’s health, safety, mobility and well-being. Strategic investment in social infrastructure encourages greater levels of equity, equality, access, participation and social cohesion across the City and within communities.”

Poor people might be wondering what Toronto they are living in, with the loss of services combined with an increase in laws criminalizing homelessness. The problem is that although the Official Plan seems to promote infrastructure and access, there is no direct policy reference to the needs of homeless people anywhere in the document.  To make matters worse, elected officials continue to introduce new ways to further eliminate the poor from downtown - witness Toronto City Councillor Case Ootes’ call for a new bylaw in order to ban panhandling in tourist areas.

One has to ask if the non-planning, and non-funding of services for poor, homeless and under-housed people in Toronto is designed to send a message that if you are poor and homeless you are not welcome or deserving.  The message for people who consider coming to Toronto and who are less fortunate is – Stay Out!  For those people who lose their housing in Toronto – the message is stay with your family and friends or Get Out!  For those who remain homeless – Get Out of the Downtown Core!

Cathy

Thanks to Dave Meslin for research and layout and Bob Crocker for editing.

 

 

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