Homeless Hell

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Fri, 10 Dec 1999 06:59:41 -0500


EYE Magazine  December 9, 1999

Homeless Hell

Last winter was a crisis. This winter will be worse

BY BRUCE LIVESEY

For Cathy Crowe, winter is the season of endless tragedy on the homeless
front. And this winter is looking particularly grim. "It feels like
we're waiting for a slaughter to happen," says Crowe, a street nurse
with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. "It's unimaginable what's
going to happen."

Already, says Crowe, Toronto's homeless shelters are filled and people
are turned away every night. More people are sleeping on the streets,
where tuberculosis and other diseases are on the rise. "Homeless people
are dying at the rate of two to four a week," says Crowe.

Last winter was considered the nadir for Toronto's homeless crisis.
Unfortunately, this winter will be even worse. Homeless shelter
occupancy is expected to rise by 7 per cent, from 4,258 to 4,560 per
night (it was only 2,060 in 1993).

The city will spend $95.6 million for hostel services -- 39 per cent
more than last year, when it was $68.6 million. But there are still
54,287 people on waiting lists for social housing, an increase of 11 per
cent over 1998. Despite this demand, only 219 rental units were built in
Toronto this year, according to city statistics.

The homeless crisis gets worse because the causes are unchanged. Indeed,
since United Way president Anne Golden's report on Toronto's homeless
crisis was released 11 months ago, the Ontario and federal governments
have done virtually nothing. "As I said in my report, the whole problem
will double in five years if nothing is done," says Golden.

Homelessness is growing even though Toronto is booming and the
unemployment rate is at its lowest level in 18 years. To account for
this apparent contradiction, experts cite factors that are unaffected by
the economic upturn -- the lack of affordable and social housing, the
end of rent controls, cuts to social assistance and a decline in real
wages.

David Hulchanski, a University of Toronto housing professor, points to
the federal government's decision to stop building social housing in
1993. "That's a very major impact," he says. "We would simply see a lot
less families homeless if that housing had been built."

The Tenant Protection Act, which the Harris government passed two years
ago, is also taking affect. It removed rent controls on newly-vacant
units. Since then, landlords have been evicting tenants en masse and
jacking up rents. "Obviously, the homeless crisis is a direct result of
tens of thousands of people being thrown out onto the street through
economic evictions," says Paul York, an activist with the Greater
Toronto Tenants' Association. York defines "economic evictions" as those
in which people are tossed because they can no longer afford their
rents.

The homeless population also includes more families, youth and children
than ever before. Josephine Grey, spokesperson for Low Incomes Families
Together, says the number of children living in poverty has climbed 142
per cent since 1989. She says more parents with a high school education
are homeless, and are increasingly turning their kids over to children's
aid societies for economic reasons. "This myth that the homeless are a
bunch of old illiterate bums flies out the window," she says.

The housing shortage is exacerbated by low wages. Armine Yalnizyan, an
economist with the Centre for Social Justice, says full-time well-paying
jobs have all but vanished in the '90s. "More people are further behind
income-wise than they were a decade ago," she says. Given all of these
elements, Yalnizyan says: "We are looking at another horrible winter for
the homeless."