Toronto Sells Off Housing and Abandons the Homeless

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Toronto Sells Off Housing and Abandons The Homeless

June 21, 2012 – Ontario Coalition Against Poverty

The ugliness of the austerity agenda is becoming clearer in Toronto. In this year’s Provincial budget we saw cuts to Social Assistance benefits, including the Community Start-Up, which presently allows 16,000 people a month to obtain or maintain housing. It is a measure that can only worsen the crisis of homelessness in Toronto and across Ontario. Last week, the Provincial Housing Minister caved into pressure from the Ford Administration and approved the sale of 65 units of public housing in this City. Hundreds more are in danger of going the same way and, indeed, the destruction of public housing is the logical end result of this political direction.

The very same week that this shameless act took place, two tragedies came to light among the homeless population. In overcrowded Seaton House shelter, tensions exploded and a man was beaten severely with a fire extinguisher in what appears to have been a dispute over whether to leave open a door to a dormitory in which there was no air conditioning. Such violent incidents are, more and more, coming to the attention of those who rely on the shelter system, and those who provide services to the homeless. Then, the body of a homeless man was found in an alcove on Parliament Street. It appears that he had crawled in there and died. Only the smell of his decomposing body led to his being found weeks after he had passed.

On June 26, the Community Services and Recreation Committee of Toronto City Council will meet and consider community delegations urging them to overturn a decision of their hostel staff to close a 55 bed shelter that is located right next door to the above mentioned Seaton House. The School House shelter has provided beds for homeless men for decades. It has been run as a ‘wet’ shelter that allows residents to bring in and consume alcohol. This has contributed significantly to preventing street deaths.

The local Councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, has supported the closing of the School House and backed the twisted logic of the hostel services bureaucracy. It is suggested that the School House has some structural problems, that it is not fully accessible and that its model of harm reduction for those with alcohol issues is not perfect. All of these points might have some sense if they were given as reasons to improve the service, but instead the ‘solution’ to the alleged shortcomings is to close the place down and provide nothing in its place. It is like suggesting that a boat has sprung a leak and that the problem is to be solved by sinking it.

But, actually, Wong-Tam and other apologists for this outrage dare to suggest that they have a better alternative to the hostel system. They are going to house people. In fact, they are going to hold off on locking down the School House until they have worked with the men in there to find housing for them. It takes a cool nerve to sell off your own housing stock, as the City of Toronto is doing, and then tell the world with a straight face that you are closing down homeless shelters because housing people is a better option. However, it needs to be said that, by their own standards, in the case of the men who stayed in the School House, they have already failed. A staff report on the shelter tells us that twenty seven of the fifty five men in there are already gone. Of these, only nine were housed. (For how long we don’t know) The rest, apart from one taken to hospital, are in other shelters, on the streets or unaccounted for. This is the best they are able to do in a situation where they know they are being watched and would like to succeed. The present population in this shelter is not being housing and those who come after them will find only a door with a padlock on it.

If the City Councillors have housing for the homeless, let them show us where it is, and when the need for shelters is truly eliminated, we’ll be the first to cheer. In the meantime, we will fight to keep open the facilities that are needed to enable people to stay alive. We will not watch as more people die in the streets when forced outside for drinking or intolerable conditions in the shelters. We will demand more bed spaces to reduce the overcrowding that creates misery and violence and more harm reduction spaces and programs.

The closing of the School House has nothing to do with any solutions for the homeless. Rather, much like the sell-off of ‘stand-alone’ TCHC houses in key neighborhoods, it is part of the agenda of up-scale redevelopment. The developers want the homeless and poor gone from areas like the down-town east, where the School House is located, and see the closing of shelters and sell-off of social housing as a good way of driving them out.

On June 26, OCAP will gather in front of City Hall at 8.30 AM for a rally and breakfast and, at 9.30 AM, we will be going up to their Committee rooms to demand the School House stay open. We urge all who wish to show their support to attend on that day. Councillors who vote for the closing of the School House shelter will make it very clear where they stand and whose side they are on. If the vote is to close the shelter, however, we will take the fight into the community and mobilize to take back the School House and challenge the social abandonment that lets homeless people die on the streets in this wealthy city.