Activists catch politicians lying about policy to deny homeless people beds

Cathy Crowe, long-time advocate and street nurse for the homeless in Toronto

THERE’S NO ROOM AT THE INN IS A LIE. They tell it to the homeless in Toronto even when homeless shelters are not full. It’s part of a devious deception designed to let politicians cover their ass.

Demand for beds doesn’t matter. Always keeping some beds open allows officials to report the shelters are not full up. And, if the shelters are not full up, the politicians can claim there is no homeless crisis in Toronto.

Doug Johnson discovered this cold-hearted and cynical political ploy in early January 2018.

An ugly and inconvenient truth

Doug has been an activist advocate for the homeless for over eight years. He discovered the awful truth when he called Toronto’s central intake agency for the homeless one Monday during a cold snap in early January. A city official told him the homeless shelters were all full—that no more beds were available for homeless people in Toronto. Yet, local politicians were adamant that this was never the case, that the shelters were more than adequate to cope with Toronto’s homelessness crisis.

Doug set out to see for himself. He walked 25 minutes to the Better Living Centre, a city-owned shelter. He asked the staffer on intake duty if they were full up. The staffer told him they were not. There were beds available, waiting to be filled.

Doug had recorded his conversations. He went public with them to expose the ugly and inconvenient truth he had discovered. He told the CBC that the city had been at it for years: intentionally keeping beds empty to give politicians the cover they needed to deny the truth about growing homelessness and the failure of the homeless shelter system to meet it.

City officials denied it all. They claimed the lie told by its central intake agency was a simple case of miscommunication.

Forced to act

Despite their denials the city announced that an additional 200 beds would be opened across all of the city’s shelters, including 40 at the Better Living Centre.

In addition, the City of Toronto ombudsman was forced to conduct an investigation. It criticized the city for giving “outdated, inaccurate and inconsistent” information about the availability of homeless services.

The Ombudsman’s report called for a new system to be put in place to share up-to-date information on winter occupancy rates at homeless shelters. Additionally, the report urged consultations to be held with homeless people and professionals supporting them to identify other ways to improve the service, and called on the city to clarify the roles of the central intake agency and other teams of homeless support workers.

During this past winter, Toronto’s underfunded and overburdened shelter system was once again incapable of coping with the demand for beds. Around 8,700 people are homeless in the city, and the numbers using the shelters have shot up by over 60 percent since 2016.

The failure to provide adequate housing for so many people in one of North America’s richest cities has deadly consequences. According to Toronto Public Health, some 100 homeless people died in 2017, an average of almost two per week.

Just last month, a further 12 names were added to the homeless memorial, a register of homeless deaths maintained by volunteers at a local church that is updated every month.

The fight goes on

Several homeless activist groups in Toronto joined together in January to form the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN). They urged the city to declare the homelessness crisis a state of emergency, which would force municipal, provincial, and federal governments to get together to take immediate action.

SHJN member Cathy Crowe is a long-time homeless advocate and street nurse in Toronto. She says a “second-tier” system has been created, with shelter conditions that have become “untenable, given the crowding and conditions.”

She said sites that started as temporary centres during cold-weather alerts are now permanent shelters for over 1,000 people in the city, and can no longer close come spring and summer.

“We are seeing serious harms to persons every day, the worst of course is deaths.”  

“It looks like a scene you would see from Hurricane Katrina or some other catastrophe,” Crowe told CBC Toronto

Toronto is in the grip of a homelessness crisis. Lying about it may be over. The failure to do anything real about it remains an ugly and inconvenient truth.

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