In our society, where wealth is surreptitiously correlated to political significance, legislators have deliberately blinded themselves to homelessness. A 2016 investigation by the Toronto Star uncovered as much: Toronto only possesses records of homeless deaths that have occurred in shelters. The result of this is a city unaware of the true scope of these tragedies and unequipped to address their underlying poverty-related issues. However, this is set to change with a new data collection program by Toronto Public Health. Starting January 1, health and social service agencies will be able to officially document statistics concerning homeless deaths like age, gender, Indigenous heritage, and cause. While a much-needed endeavour, the belatedness of its formation accents our woefully lacking response toward Toronto’s roughly 5000 homeless people.
A demographic portrait of homelessness in Toronto illustrates the depth of this problem. The 2013, Street Needs Assessment (SNA) found that while only one per cent of Torontonians identify as Indigenous, they constitute a staggering 33 per cent of our outdoor homeless population. The same report concluded that more than one in five residents at homeless youth shelters identify as part of the LGBTQ2 community. The 2002 Pathways into Homelessness Project in Toronto reported that 67 per cent of the 300 shelter users they interviewed claimed a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness. Men make up 65 per cent of all homeless Torontonians and a whopping 85 per cent of our outdoor homeless, according to the SNA (it might be useful to consider how gender roles might shape circumstances leading to homelessness). There’s a clear prevalence of homelessness among populations that are already disadvantaged. We’ve further marginalized our most marginalized peoples.
The political response to this bleak reality is even more disheartening. For at least the past six years, the Mayor’s Office has championed policies of austerity, scorning many anti-poverty initiatives. The late former Mayor Rob Ford sanctioned the closure of three homeless shelters—around 100 beds—in his 2012 budget and stood as the sole vote against two significant proposals: increasing the capacity of Toronto’s overcrowded shelter system in 2013 and exploring the idea of an LGBTQ youth shelter in 2014. The election of Mayor John Tory could have signalled a less morally starved tone from senior officials, and at first, it did. In early 2015, Tory directed the city to rent motel rooms in response to jam-packed shelters and expressly recognized the need to open more spaces. But between March 2015 and September 2016, the city forfeited 169 shelter beds, and budget cuts currently on the table aim to slash 20 staff positions across Toronto’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration division. Poverty rates are surging, the worst of Canada’s winter is upon us, and still the needs of our homeless seem negligible to city politicians.
At an individual level, our collective action is further stifled by the stigmatization of homelessness. There’s an ugly tendency to place the blame for destitution squarely on the shoulders of homeless people. We think they’re crazies and junkies and fail to consider the destructiveness of addiction and mental illness when untreated. We think they’re deadbeats and criminals and fail to consider the cycle of poverty, unlivable wages, and other socioeconomic handicaps. These labels actively work to dehumanize homeless people and legitimize their condition. In the end, this mindset is what drives our deficit of compassion and undermines others’ best efforts to give a voice and visibility to the homeless community.
But, of course, there is power in small deeds; we can take action before political and societal improvements are made. Volunteer your time at a shelter or soup kitchen, like Good Shepherd Ministries (http://www.goodshepherd.ca/) or Covenant House (https://www.covenanthouse.ca/). Donate your non-perishables to a food collection agency, like the Daily Bread Food Bank (http://www.dailybread.ca/) or Second Harvest (http://www.secondharvest.ca/). Gift some hygiene products and gently-used clothing to organizations that cater to specific disadvantaged communities, like Sistering (http://www.sistering.org/) or the Native Women’s Resource Centre (http://nwrct.ca/). And if you see a homeless person outdoors in need—especially during Extreme Cold Weather Alerts—call 311 to contact the city’s street outreach workers.
Just being watchful of those living on our streets can lessen the homeless’ chronic invisibility; it’s a gesture of empathy in a place where society at large doesn’t see a need.