For the past few months, there has been a growing debate in the city of Toronto. Homelessness and poverty advocates have been raising the alarm about an increasing crisis in our city’s shelter system. City officials, however, claim that the system is working well, that shelter beds are always available, and that anyone who says otherwise is simply exaggerating.
Here at Street Health, we work with homeless people; we see how choices made by city officials can sometimes limit the choices available to vulnerable homeless citizens.
Back on February 15th, 2013 Street Health nurse Victory Lall gave a speech that she and fellow nurse Jessica Hales composed [scroll down for transcript of this speech]. Concerned citizens and agencies gathered at The Church of the Holy Trinity (location of Toronto’s Homeless Memorial) to express the need to address this growing crisis. Her is our nurses’ perspective:
In late January, a young man froze to death on the street in east Toronto (Chong, 2013). At Street Health we hear clients speak of challenges of finding a shelter bed during extreme cold alerts; waiting outside, freezing cold, for hours in shelter line-ups only to be turned away. People are put on hold for an hour just to speak to the Central Shelter registry when telephones are hard to access. There are clients who would rather risk freezing to death on the street than spend a night in an overcrowded, unsafe and undignified shelter. At certain times during the freezing nights the Assessment and referral Centre had nowhere to send people for shelter. In 2012, 34 people died in Toronto – Homeless (Rowe, 2013).
These deaths allude to a larger problem. Income inequality in Canada is growing. Today the richest 1% of Canadians in Toronto makes 23x the average salary; in 1980 the ratio in Canada was 9x (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013). So, over the past 30 years, Ontario has become more unequal. Despite a growing income gap, recession, continued erosion of social assistance rates, a housing crisis and a shortage of dignified shelter space, in the 2013 budget the city voted to cut emergency shelter by 2.9%, or 110 beds per night (Shapcott, 2012). We have also seen the loss of harm reduction shelter, putting people at risk of injury and death.
As a nurse, I am here today to stand up for the Health of Canadians. It is not just about medical treatments that shape our health. Our living conditions determine our health. And when people are worried about where they will sleep, because of inadequate income, inadequate housing and inadequate shelter space, these inequities have a negative impact on our health.
Anyone here could be just one pay cheque away from becoming homeless. The recent deaths and cuts to services are a violation of our rights: our right to have a fair income, to have an affordable place to live and feel at home, and our right to be in a warm place to sleep regardless of how much money we make, our physical and mental health status, or problems of addiction. The city of Toronto, the province of Ontario and the Country of Canada must stop promoting more wealth for the wealthiest, and ensure that the basic human right to adequate income, education, quality housing and healthy food is met for every single person.