One of the true downers of activism is that the same issues keep coming back around again and again.
In March of 2013 I was arrested at an Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) sit-in at Toronto’s Metro Hall protesting the chronic lack of space in city shelters. That winter, several people had frozen to death on the streets of the city, and yet homeless folks were regularly turned away from the city’s shelters due to a lack of beds. This was despite official City of Toronto policy that occupancy rates at municipal shelters should not exceed 90%. Then-mayor Rob Ford brushed off our concerns, insisting that there were available beds – an assertion which was flatly contradicted by a City report released in the months that followed.
The sit-in I participated in was the second in as many months for OCAP. In February, they also occupied the lobby outside of Mayor Ford’s office [link is to the Toronto Sun – fair warning!], demanding that shelter space be made immediately available; several people were arrested that night as well.
(Eventually, all charges related to the whole affair were thrown out – it seems that the main purpose of laying the charges to begin with was to end the sit-ins.)
That round of protests was successful, in a way; after months of delay and denial, city council voted to aim for more shelter beds and reaffirmed their target of 90% occupancy.
In retrospect, though, it’s obvious that Council was all talk and no action.
Which is why, this coming Monday, OCAP is going back to City Hall.
And to read through their press release, you’d think we were still in 2013.
Despite many promises to deal with the dreadful overcrowding in Toronto’s homeless shelters, the City policy of keeping occupancy levels at 90% or below has still not been put into effect. Even in the summer months, the shelters are overflowing. At the same time, a process of social cleansing is underway, with plans being developed to drive the homeless out of the downtown core…
OCAP is demanding that no shelters be closed and the George Street redevelopment be put on hold until the City has replacement locations lined up in the same area of the City.
On September 21, we will be confronting the politicians at City Hall who are responsible for this situation and placing our demands before them. Please come out and join our action.
And the frustration with the endless cycle of protest is evident in the group’s open letter to Mayor John Tory on the issue:
You will doubtless remember the homeless deaths that happened in this City at the beginning of the year. At the time, promises were made to reduce the level of overcrowding but nothing of the kind has happened. If we look at the latest Daily Shelter Census, issued by the City, we see an (understated) overall occupancy figure of 95%, with the men’s system running at 96% and the women’s at 97%. We must presume there is simply no intention of complying with the 90% policy that Council has adopted…
OCAP is sometimes accused of being unduly ‘confrontational’ but, in truth, we have made serious and ongoing attempts to dialogue with politicians and senior levels of the Administration and have only half hearted measures of redress and a string of empty promises to show for it. We must assume that the only way we can address this matter is to prove to you that the homeless and their allies will not be ignored and that they will act to ensure that the shame and disgrace of the abandonment of homeless people in this City will not be swept under the rug.
Yesterday, to draw attention to this vital and overlooked issue, some folks took over the roof of a recently-closed shelter for most of the day. The Hope Shelter, which was run by the Salvation Army at McCaul and College for nearly forty years, shut down this spring when the building’s rent increased and the Salvation Army wasn’t able to cover its costs. This closure took 124 beds out of an already-overburdened shelter system, and the City has done nothing to replace this space in the interim.
Now, with winter just around the corner, the need to address this shortage is urgent. Toronto needs both a short-term plan to ensure that nobody freezes to death this winter and a long-term plan to provide guaranteed housing to all of our residents. For a city as wealthy as Toronto is, this is an achievable dream, and one that’s well worth fighting for.
Even if you have to keep fighting the same battles over and over again.
Solidarity with OCAP in their struggle for shelter space. If you’re free Monday at noon, head down to City Hall and show them your support!