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A make-shift memorial sits at a TTC stop where a man was found without vital signs in Toronto on Tuesday. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)
A make-shift memorial sits at a TTC stop where a man was found without vital signs in Toronto on Tuesday. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)

Blaming lack of homeless services for recent deaths is jumping the gun Add to ...

By mid-morning, things had returned to normal at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas.

The police cars and the ambulance were long gone. Streetcars sailed by. Shoppers hurried in and out of the Eaton Centre. A guy in skinny pants put up a sale sign in the window of H&M. A young woman in a parka handed out discount vouchers.

Yet it was here, just a few hours earlier, that a man died in plain sight. He was found in a glass-walled transit shelter around 5:30 a.m. He was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans in the bitter weather. Reports said a hospital bracelet was on his wrist.

Vital signs were absent when paramedics got to him. They worked on him in the ambulance, but failed to revive him. Reports said the man had a troubled background, including episodes of homelessness.

A story like this tugs uncomfortably on the city’s conscience. How does someone wearing a hospital bracelet come to be on the street in summer clothes on a night so cold? How does a man die this way in the very heart of the city?

“How is it that this man wandered into Yonge-Dundas Square and no one asked him what his needs were or asked him into a coffee shop,” asks David Reycraft, director of homeless services at the Dixon Hall agency.

The questions become more urgent because this is the second such death in as many days. A man died in the west end on Monday in the run-down delivery van where he had been living.

The deaths brought calls for immediate action. An anti-poverty group gathered outside the office of Mayor John Tory to demand more emergency shelter space. Others called for a long-term fix: more affordable housing.

If only it were so simple. Homelessness is a knotty problem. It is still too early to say what led to the man’s death at Yonge and Dundas and how it might have been prevented.

Was he released from hospital and left to wander out in the cold? Did he leave a hospital without checking out? Was he mentally ill or suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, as many homeless people are? Did he have other medical problems?

Blaming a lack of homeless services for the deaths is jumping the gun. Toronto has a pretty good system of emergency care for the vulnerable homeless, from street checks to emergency shelters to drop-in centres. The volunteer Out of the Cold network provides beds in churches and synagogues.

The city’s homeless shelters are busy but not full, with 93 per cent of beds taken as of Monday. They are not turning people away to freeze in the cold. Some people with mental-health or addiction problems won’t go into a shelter no matter how cold it is. “We could open a million beds and they still wouldn’t use it,” says Councillor James Pasternak, chair of the city’s social development and recreation committee.

He says he is still waiting for a report on the death at Yonge and Dundas, but that the man may have left a shelter of his own accord.

The biggest question in the whole affair was why public health officials did not declare an extreme-weather alert for Tuesday. They usually call one when the overnight temperature is expected to fall below -15 C. Tuesday’s temperatures did not go quite that low, but wind chills made the weather feel worse. We cannot say whether such an alert would have saved a life. We cannot even say for certain whether cold was the cause of death. But why not err on the side of caution when the weather is so threatening?

To be safe, Mr. Tory called on Tuesday for city warming centres to open. That was the right and obvious call. As he put it, the city needs to redouble its efforts to make sure our most vulnerable are not left out in the cold.

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