[Hpn] Video shows shelter's dark reality

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Tue, 17 Dec 2002 03:56:40 -0800


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Dec. 17, 2002. 01:00 AM The Toronto Star

Video shows shelter's dark reality
Homeless people lying side-by-side in cramped space Advocates using images
to call for immediate action

NICK MCCABE-LOKOS
STAFF REPORTER

They are images of life at night in an emergency shelter that few people
see.

Mats inches thin lay side by side in the basement. People mill about
stepping over each other in the dark, trying to stake out a piece of the
ground on which they can spend the night.

The videotape is being released by housing advocates to show, what they say,
is the dire need to open 200 new shelter beds in Toronto.

"We know that shelters are overcrowded," said Beric German, of the Toronto
Disaster Relief Committee.

"This video was shot to show the conditions and the fact that we have to
have more shelter beds.

"We need affordable housing ultimately."

The footage was recorded on Sunday night by a housing advocate who posed as
a homeless man.

"He went in with a secret video. It was in his cap," German said.

The CBC, which has exclusive rights to the video, will broadcast excerpts
tonight at 6 p.m. during a report on the Toronto version of Canada Now.

Much of the tape is shrouded in darkness, but a basement full of mats and
people can be made out.

The name of the shelter was not released, but it operates as part of the Out
Of The Cold network of about 40 churches, synagogues and agencies that
provide care in addition to Toronto's 70 shelters.

German said his group felt it was necessary to show the cramped conditions
that people who depend on emergency shelters must endure; conditions he says
are both physically and psychologically dangerous.

"That's particularly dangerous around the old diseases like tuberculosis.
And it's particularly dangerous to mental health because people can't be
that close together, strangers particularly. They can suffer from depression
ultimately."

While portions of the video show empty mats, German says that by the end of
the night the shelter was at capacity, holding about 150 people.

"City council had said that if shelters are running at 90 per cent capacity
then they should open a shelter. Shelters are running at well over 90 per
cent capacity."

Unfortunately, German says, the conditions shown are not unique to the
shelter in the video. It is similar in shelters across the city.

"We need a 200-bed shelter for both couples and men in particular. It's
becoming more and more dangerous."

The city of Toronto has already issued one cold weather alert this season.
The alerts are called when temperatures drop below -15C. Under the alert,
extra services like additional emergency sleeping spaces, increased street
patrols and TTC tickets are made available.

German worries about Norwalk virus spreading through the shelters. Victims
of the virus deal with days of vomiting and diarrhea and since the shelter
in the video provides only nighttime shelter they would be without care.

"In that particular shelter, people can't stay all day. So if they get
Norwalk virus, they have to go out into the cold," he said.

During the last census, Statistics Canada tried to get a grasp on the number
of people using emergency shelters across the country.

It's difficult to nail down since the number is always changing. But on the
day they counted, May 14, 2001, there were 14,125 people who stayed
overnight  2,570 of those were in Toronto.

Homeless workers say that number is much too low.

German estimates that on any given night there are 1,000 people on the
street and 5,000 people in the shelter system.

Last year, the federal and provincial governments announced a plan to start
addressing the nationwide housing crisis.

The program was supposed to eventually see 10,000 affordable housing units
built in Ontario, half of them in the GTA.

One year later, no new units have been constructed.

There are 60,000 families in Toronto on waiting lists for subsidized
housing. In the GTA suburbs, another 26,000 are waiting.

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