Canada's National Post reported anti-poverty activists shouted “shame!” as they filed into council chambers shortly before noon, prompting the speaker to halt the meeting.
“People are dying on the streets. Your shelters are full,” Gaetan Heroux, a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, shouted from the edge of the velvet rope that encircles the council floor.
Things quickly became physical as security forced some members out. The pushing and shoving then continued as police moved in. About a quarter of council on both the right and left side of the political spectrum stuck around to hear what the activists had to say. Councilperson Adam Vaughan says they have a point.
"We're trying to handle it here," says Vaughan, "but we are handling it with very scarce resources."
Last Wednesday night OCAP says an Aboriginal man who was homeless was found frozen to death in a stairwell in Toronto. Another man was found in Chinatown with serious injury from exposure.
The activists complained the city has shut down too many shelters. Even Phil Brown, the general manager, of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, says the city is down 198 beds as of the end of 2007. Four shelters with a total of 258 beds have closed, while a new shelter with 60 beds has been opened.
Heroux said he does not believe city claims, however, that there is plenty of space in homeless shelters.
“I don't believe the city,” he said. “The hostels are full; the hostels are packed ... people are sleeping in the common areas, on the floor with no blankets. It's ridiculous.”
OCAP has issued a publication on the bad state of housing for street people in Toronto. It's entitled "They Call It Struggle for a Reason." The introduction to the report reads:
" The City of Toronto is in the process of dismantling the hostel system in the downtown core. By mid summer of last year five shelters in the downtown core were shut down: Council Fire, 110 Edward, 60 Richmond, Salvation Army’s Riverdale Shelter, and Treasure House. The total number of hostel beds lost was 312. These shelters provided more than 340,000 meals and supplied 113, 880 beds annually. The total savings to the city and the province is $4 million. These cuts will further deteriorate conditions in city hostels, where overcrowding, violence, TB, and bed bugs have already become the norm. "
New Democratic Party Housing critic Cheri DiNovo says it’s appalling the Liberals refuse to take concrete action on providing shelter to the most vulnerable after the 50-year-old homeless Toronto man was found dead last week during an extreme cold alert of -27 Celsius.
“How many more unnecessary deaths need to happen before the McGuinty Liberals takes shelter in this province seriously? Cold alerts don’t help when emergency shelters are overcrowded, leaving many with no where to go when temperatures hit record breaking lows,” said DiNovo.
Last week, DiNovo introduced a Private Members Bill that would amend the Ontario Human Rights Code to enshrine shelter as a right for all Ontarians.
According to the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) an average of four to six homeless people die each month, but this does not include those who are unidentified or unreported.
On the Federal level, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2008 budget effectively threatens to withdraw what little federal funding exists to help the nation's homeless or to alleviate the growing affordable housing crisis in Canada. "There's not a penny for new truly affordable homes in federal budget 2008, even though all three national housing and homeless programs are due to expire this year," said Michael Shapcott, a policy fellow at The Wellesley Institute in Toronto.
The following is from CTV Toronto.
OCAP interrupts council to protest shelter cuts
Poverty activists stormed city hall today, interrupting a council meeting to protest Toronto's services for the homeless.
Members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty planned the protest after a homeless man was found dead in a downtown stairwell on Feb. 27, reportedly as a result of freezing temperatures.
About a dozen Toronto police officers were on hand and ushered the protesters out of council chambers.
In a news release issued by the organization Monday, OCAP said the city needs to address a shortage in Toronto shelters.
"Over the last decade the city has refused to address the serious over-crowding and lack of beds that exist in the shelter system," the statement said. "We cannot bring this man back. But we can demand no further deaths occur."
The week before the homeless man died, city officials heard deputations from social service agencies as well as homeless people, advocating for more financial support to services.
OCAP member Gaetan Heroux was quoted in Monday's news release saying people who stay in hostels face dangerous conditions.
"Not only do crowded hostels create violence and psychological damage, but many people will face the bracing cold of February and could sustain cold injuries and even perish," he said.
According to OCAP, the city recently closed down five shelters in the downtown core, resulting in a total loss of 312 beds.