[Hpn] War wiped homelessness off the map;Opinion;Toronto Star;10/15/2001

Morgan W. Brown norsehorse@hotmail.com
Mon, 15 Oct 2001 09:22:29 -0400


-------Forwarded article-------

Monday, October 15, 2001
Toronto Star <http://www.thestar.com>
[Toronto, Ontario, Canada]
Opinion section
War wiped homelessness off the map

The city rapidly created a 450-bed shelter for stranded airline passengers 
but has done nothing for those who really need it

[By] Kathy Hardill

--[Photo Caption]
Although it isn't mentioned in the news any more, the plight of the homeless 
is still a major problem in Toronto.
--[End of photo caption]

It has been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. Sometimes, the 
truth is concealed by omission, by what is not said. Recently, important 
issues have been bumped from the news pages and television screens. When 
terrorists attacked the United States last month, much of the world was 
transfixed as events unfolded, minute-by-minute, and then day-by-day, in the 

It was as if there was no other news  the magnitude of the acts and their 
aftermath was stunning. After a time, as the media deluge continued, the 
stories seemed stretched more thinly. Minute details were magnified  from 
what the searcher dogs were wearing on their paws to what kind of takeout 
food the hijackers liked to eat. Now, as America has launched its new war, 
we are presented with endless military analyses and hastily knit 
documentaries on formerly obscure terrorist groups with links to the prime 
suspect. CNN has virtually become the "War Channel." Almost every other 
issue has completely disappeared off the map.

In Toronto, for example, it has been very difficult to call attention to the 
problem of homelessness as we approach another winter. But if we were to 
focus our collective attention on this issue in the same manner as we have 
done with the relentless leadup to war  if we were to scrutinize our city's 
growing poverty in the same minute detail  what would we see?

The economy has taken a nosedive. Economists are presently scrambling to 
reassure nervous investors and to convince them that standing pat is the 
savvy approach (not to mention one's patriotic duty). But the markets were 
in trouble long before Sept. 11.

This means that poverty has gotten worse, and is not going to get better any 
time soon. It means that more people are losing money and jobs. It means 
that people are being laid off, and are not going to be able to cover their 
car payments, their mortgages, their rent. Just as there are flesh and blood 
human victims of our high tech wars, so there are real live human casualties 
of our economic policies.

If we were to train our eyes on the aftermath of economic devastation, we 
would see a bleak landscape indeed. The city's own "report card" on 
homelessness, released earlier this year, reports that homelessness is 
getting worse. It states that more than half the people using its shelters 
in 1999 were first timers. More than 2,000 applications for evictions are 
made every month in Toronto, which amounts to 100 every business day. The 
city's vacancy rate is 0.6 per cent; 1,400 people add their names to the 
waiting list for social housing every month.

One year ago, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee conducted research 
revealing a shelter system bursting at the seams, with endemic crowding, 
disease and violence. For the most part, however, this system is unseen and 
unscrutinized, so city officials are able to deny the problems exist and 
present their own version of the situation largely unchallenged. When they 
talk about shelters being only 85 or 90 or 95 per cent full, they are 
manipulating numbers and playing a devious shell game designed to understate 
problems and conceal the system's shortcomings. They are then able to 
conclude that although the shelter system is "tight," it is currently 
providing sufficient resources for homeless people.

Let us look at what city officials mean by "tight." Shelters A and B are 
approximately the same physical size. Shelter A has 40 cots in it. When this 
shelter is 90 per cent full, there are 36 people occupying those cots. 
Shelter B has 120 mats squeezed into it. When Shelter B is 90 per cent full, 
there are 108 people crammed into it.

Shelter B is barely survivable when it's 75 per cent full. Even at that 
capacity, it does not meet United Nations standards, which say there should 
be at least one toilet for every 20 people. Shelter B has one toilet for 
every 60 people. There are no showers. It is not uncommon for two or even 
three people to share a space which the U.N. says is the minimum safe amount 
of room for one person in a refugee camp. This standard is not just about 
comfort, it is a public health measure designed to prevent disease 
transmission. Shelter B and others like it are perfect breeding grounds for 
infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis.

Since 1998, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee has been calling for the 
city to invoke its Emergency Planning Bylaw and convene the emergency 
planning committee in order to mobilize disaster relief efforts and address 
homelessness as the crisis it is. The city has steadfastly refused to do 

Remarkably, at the end of September, Hostel Services staff admitted during a 
meeting of the city's Advisory Committee on Homeless and Socially Isolated 
Persons that the shelter system was short at least 200 beds. Committee 
members voted unanimously to immediately open a 200-bed hostel. So far, no 
action has been taken.

We recently learned that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the city called 
together its emergency planning committee. One of the first actions taken 
was the almost immediate creation of a 450-bed shelter for stranded airline 
passengers whose flights had been diverted to Toronto. As it turned out, the 
shelter was not needed for this purpose. However, there are hundreds of 
homeless Torontonians who would gratefully accept such shelter if it were 
offered to them. So far, no such offer has been made.

We do not have the benefit of a closeup lens peering unblinkingly into 
crowded, unsafe shelters, nor into cold, wet hovels in parks and ravines, 
with their piles of soggy blankets and rotting food. We have no 24-hour 
cable news channel with cameras trained upon the food banks, the soup 
kitchens, the shelter lineups. On the one hand, we pore over every possible 
angle of every issue even remotely associated with the current war. On the 
other, we scrupulously avoid glancing at the mounting poverty around us.

Governments must begin to think about homelessness as the disaster it is 
because what we can now see on every corner in almost every neighbourhood is 
going to get worse, and will become a full-fledged public health catastrophe 
(not to mention a human one) if not dealt with quickly. Of course, the 
solution is affordable housing. But in the meantime, we must begin, at the 
very least, with adequate safe shelter for everyone who needs it.

We must not be distracted from the truth of the crises on our own doorsteps 
 crises with real human victims. We must not allow war in Afghanistan to 
obscure the war being waged here against poor people. City officials need to 
ask themselves these questions: Can they imagine their city in five years, 
or 10, if they do not act responsibly now? Can they imagine the infectious 
disease rates? A beleaguered Public Health Department scrambling to contain 
tuberculosis, perhaps in its drug-resistant forms? Shantytowns sprouting up 
like mushrooms on every patch of vacant land? Families squatting in 
makeshift shacks, cooking over open fires?

None of these scenarios are far-fetched, or far off. Another winter is fast 
approaching. We need to buy an ounce of prevention because a pound of cure 
will truly break the budget.

Kathy Hardill is a street nurse who works for the Toronto Disaster Relief 


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Morgan <norsehorse@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA

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