[Hpn] War wiped homelessness off the map;Opinion;Toronto Star;10/15/2001
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 15 Oct 2001 09:22:29 -0400
Monday, October 15, 2001
Toronto Star <http://www.thestar.com>
[Toronto, Ontario, Canada]
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
TONY BOCK/ TORONTO STAR
Although it isn't mentioned in the news any more, the plight of the homeless
is still a major problem in Toronto.
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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 W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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