Toronto homeless - Opening the Armouries

Paul York (stephen.york@utoronto.ca)
Fri, 12 Feb 1999 21:16:50 PST


City Councillors ignore plight of homeless,
despite Toronto's "disaster area" status
Opening up the Armouries - City Hall's decision
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An independent report on Council's decision re:
to open up the armouries as shelters - from Paul York

Community and Neighbourhood Services Committee
meeting Thursday, February 11, 1999, City Hall
- afternoon session

In a disturbing show of partisan politics, a majority of
Toronto councillors voted against a motion that would
have led to an opening of the Department of Defense 
armouries for uses as homeless shelters.

The hostel system in Toronto is badly overcrowded,
requiring an estimated 300 more beds than are
currently available.

Siding with a staff report which opposed "the extended
use of large facilities such as the armouries" were
Councillors  Korwin-Kuczynski, King, Chong, Filion, Cho, 
Davis, Brown and Feldman.

In favour of opening up the armouries, to alleviate the
severe shortage of hostel beds, were Councillors
Layton, Prue and Chow.

There were other votes and issues discussed, but
the armoury issue was the most contentious.

The staff report for the Community and Neighbourhood
Services Committee was signed by Commissioner
Shirley Hoy and Housing Company head manager Joanne 
Campbell.

The report stated that a 30 bed extension "will be
sufficient for the balance of this cold season," despite
several reports from shelters and health workers that at 
least 300 new beds are needed--ten times the number
indicated by the staff report.

Olivia Chow stated "480 beds are not enough."

The need will soon be greater than ever due to the
temporary closure of Seaton House due to renovations,
resulting in a loss of 150 beds. Opening the armouries 
would provide a temporary solution to the expected
shortfall, and would help solve the current shortage.

Jack Layton invited the councillors to drop in on a
hostel at or 1 or 2 a.m. to see for themselves the
overcrowding. In some places bodies are so tightly
packed they touch one another, like "rows of the dead."
Layton said the prison system and refugee camps are
less crowded. "We provide more space to those locked
up," he said.

Layton called for the establishment of minimum space
 and living standard for shelters. He also drew attention
to the issue of occupancy rates. A 10% vacancy rate is
considered healthy. Currently the hostels are full to capacity,
with hundreds more beds required—very much parallel to
the less than one per cent vacancy rate for rental housing
units in Toronto, which has contributed greatly to the
problem of homelessness in this city.

On January 22 the Advisory Committee for Homeless
and Socially Isolated People, which Layton chairs, voted
to ask the Mayor to "open the armouries immediately as 
a short-term response to the current capacity shortage in
the hostel system until such time as the new east and
west sites are opened."

Joan King set the tone for some of the right-wing
councillors by stating her firm commitment against "shared
use" of the armouries by military and homeless people.

King said shelters and social services should not be
concentrated in a particular area and several services were
already available near the Moss Park armoury. Unfortunately,
not all of them are shelters.

Olivia Chow stated that the armoury was in her ward and
she did not object to opening it up. During the snowstorm in
January it was opened to provide temporary shelter to 150 people.

Councillor Chong attempted to reduce the issue of
homelessness to mental illness as a prelude to his argument
against opening the armouries. The issues are concurrent,
but not identical.

Chong went on to defend the Harris government, saying
"it has become fashionable to blame Harris for the homeless
problem." Chong seemed to be unaware that his friend cut
rent subsidies, cancelled all new social housing projects,
slashed housing support programs and allowed rents to rise
in the private sector.

It is "premature" to open the armouries, according to Chong.
He urges more study of the Homeless Task Force report.
Ironically, parts of that report urges immediate action, as
well as advocating long-term solutions.

Chong repeated a phrase that has become the universal
excuse for inaction on this issue: "we’re not going to solve
the homeless problem." This is a variation on the theme of
"the poor will always be with us."

Chong writes a regular column on homelessness in
Hi-Rise community newspaper. He has used that forum to
rail against OCAP and defend Harris.

Chong went on to defend Kyle Rae, who closed a
Salvation Army hostel last year in deference to local
businessmen, saying, "Councillor Rae should be commended.
He met with OCAP and conceded more than he was
originally prepared to."

Though councillors Rae and Miller are both NDP in political
stripe, they have angered tenant and homeless activists
considerably in the last year by siding with NIMBY
ratepayer groups against poor persons.

The NDP was founded on a platform of social justice and
advocacy for the poor which holds that a society may be
judged by how it treats is least fortunate members. Rae
and Miller would do well to remember that.

Mike Feldman was "afraid temporary conditions would
become permanent" and reiterated the obvious need for
more permanent housing. This begs the question: 
where will the homeless go in the meantime?

Several councillors wanted to defer (or "refer") the decision
 pending a further staff report. Michael Prue said, "the staff
may have a report by the middle of March, but this may be
 too late." He was referring to the fact that delays--even of a 
month--may result in more fatalities on the street due to the
cold and wet. Several people have already died this year
from exposure.

In response to earlier objections that the armouries were
needed for marches and other military exercises, Prue said
the Department can "double up" on activities in order to
free space for shelter use.

Prue defended the armoury use as a "short term response
until we can get more facilities." He described the condition
of crowded hostels as rife with violence, intimidation and
theft, which is why "those who need shelters don't use them."
This would explain why some homeless people are "service
resistant" (to use a catch-phrase bandied about).

The National Disaster Relief Committee report refers to the
increased risk of illness due to overcrowded conditions.

On the issue of "shared use" of the armoury, Layton said,
"I’ll bet if you ask the reserves [if they’d want the armoury
opened] they’d be the first ones to agree." That’s why they
joined the Armed Forces, he said: "to help people."

Chris Korwin-Kuczynski said, "if we make this request now,
the Department of Defense might say this option is not
available next winter." Those who care about this issue
hope that enough housing will be built by next winter to
make use of the armouries unecessary.

Korwin-Kuczynski also stated, "we have other facilities
we can use." Rob Davis appeared to agree with this
proposition. Several people mentioned recreation centres,
but there was no discussion regarding particular sites.
"If staff do come forward, we'll consider these other
facilities," stated Korwin-Kuczynski.

Councillor Cho examined the possibility of more people
dying from exposure as a result of inadequate shelter
facilities. "We don’t want to see people dying," he stated,
then inexplicably: "If they want to die, they die."

Cho asked rhetorically, "are we really helping them?"
Many in the room wondered the same thing.

The National Disaster Relief Committee states that
"during the recent snowstorm the Moss Park Armoury
sheltered 150 people on its first night and there is reason to
believe that at least 100 more people would have begun
to use it had it remained open."

The NDRC statement is clarion call for opening up the
Moss Park and Fort York Armouries. "The use of armouries,"
it states, "draws a line to the other partner necessary to
end the Homeless Disaster--the Federal Government. Their
responsibility in long term housing solutions does not
preclude them helping with short term emergency measures."
See http://www.tao.ca/~tdrc/

The "one per cent solution" endorsed by the NDRC calls on
the Federal government to spend an additional one per cent
of its budget on social housing, thus stimulating the private
sector to build new rental housing. This would have the 
long-term effect of increasing supply and decreasing prices,
or rents.

It is well established that economic evictions, due in large
part to high rents, are a leading cause of homelessness in
Ontario--especially since the welfare cuts and imposition
of "vacancy decontrol" (the phase-out of rent controls).

Just before the vote, when Jack Layton tried to make
some closing remarks, Korwin-Kuzcinski, who was chairing
the meeting, cut Layton off in a belligerent manner. "KK" was
visibly upset. Jack remained calm.

Members of the National Disaster Committee witnessed
the proceedings. Layton spoke with them after the event
--a voice of support.

City Council voted (almost unanimously) to declare Toronto
a homeless disaster area. There is universal agreement that
something must be done immediately to alleviate the problem,
to prevent deaths.

The City's own Task Force on Homelessness has stated as much.

Yet on February 11 many of the same councillors who have
declared the concern for homeless people voted against a
short-term measure that is practical, viable and necessary.

By letting the this vote become a partisan issue, Toronto City
Council has taken a backward step in the fight to end
homelessness.