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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Cathy Crowe remembers when deaths of homeless people were so infrequent in Toronto that advocates would hold a press conference for each one and then pound on the glass doors outside the mayor’s office demanding action.

Now that kind of individual attention is impossible, both because of the skyrocketing numbers of deaths among the unhoused and the fact that, to put it bluntly, people just don’t seem to care. Not the mayor’s office, and not the rest of the city numbed by almost two years of pandemic living.

Ms. Crowe, a street nurse for more than 30 years, was steeling herself for the announcement of this month’s death toll. On the second Tuesday of each month, the organizers of the Toronto Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity read out the names of those who have died in the city’s shelters and streets. It used to be two or four names, Ms. Crowe says. Last month 17 names were read out. This month it was much worse.

“I got the message that it was going to be 27 or 30, and I nearly fell over,” Ms. Crowe said in an interview. “It hit me. It blindsided me. And then it went to 34.” As she watched the livestream of the memorial, with the 34 names of unhoused people being read out – many of them Jane or John Does – she noticed something else. Only 25 other people were watching online. “So I’m a little pissed off at Toronto, to tell the truth. All of Toronto.”

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While the rest of the city is struggling with the continuing strain of the pandemic, the crisis has struck a particularly vicious blow to the city’s unhoused population. “It was already bad, really bad,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto and one of the organizers of the Homeless Memorial. “I knew it would get worse, but not how fast.”

He points to a series of compounding factors: The pandemic itself, not only for its actual effects on health but also because it deprived unhoused people of money (fewer people out and about with less cash for panhandlers) and places to go. Many drop-in and support programs were closed. Evictions, temporarily on hold in Ontario in 2020, were allowed to resume. People who might have had a precarious housing arrangement like couchsurfing at a friend’s suddenly found themselves out on the street.

Toronto’s ridiculously unaffordable housing and rental market is obviously a factor. What is a hot dinner-party topic for people with roofs over their heads and food on the table is literally a matter of life and death when that roof is non-existent. Mr. Cook points out that rooming houses are being torn down or turned into condos, and even those that do still exist are unaffordable for many. Toronto’s shelters are full and its emergency shelter-hotels are crowded and, thanks to the crisis of poisoned drugs, often unsafe.

The problem of tainted drugs is huge, and disproportionately affects the unhoused population. Many of the homeless people who died last month overdosed. While the city is moving in the right direction – utilizing safe injection sites, and a small pilot project to provide a clean opioid supply in one neighbourhood – the crisis is still acute in shelter-hotels. The Toronto Shelter-Hotel Overdose Action Task Force recently issued a report with a series of recommendations, including hiring a leader to manage the crisis response and an expansion of prevention strategies such as safe drug-use sites.

As Ms. Crowe pointed out, there’s another crisis, and that’s one of inattention. For a brief moment this summer, when the city sent in police to forcefully clear out encampments in three city parks, there was public outrage at the sight of police on horses and hired security guards clashing with peaceful activists and encampment residents. It turns out the city spent $2-million flushing people out of their tent homes. The ombudsman’s office is investigating the clearance, but you don’t have to be the city ombudsman to wonder if that money couldn’t have been better spent providing actual housing rather than tearing shelters down. The dismantling of encampments continues in Toronto’s parks, even if public attention has drifted away.

We’re faced with an incredibly complex problem, obviously, compounded by the pandemic and the abundance of tainted drugs. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions out there, if the will existed to implement them. Ms. Crowe points to the historical precedent of the giant tent city on Toronto’s waterfront, which was cleared in 2002 and many of its residents provided with rental subsidies so that they could find permanent homes. As well, in the short term, unused buildings could be expropriated, the leases on shelter-hotels extended, better management of the drug supply implemented, and the clearing of encampments put to a halt.

But that would mean the crisis would have to be acknowledged. If more than 30 members of any other identifiable group died in a month, you can be sure there’d be yelling from the rafters to get something done. As Mr. Cook said, “There needs to be a task force and treat it like the emergency it is.”

Winter’s setting in, and the Omicron variant is upon us, so it’s easy to give into hopelessness or turn away. Easy, but not right. I keep thinking of the words someone has chalked on the wall of the Church of the Holy Trinity, above the names in the Homeless Memorial: “Fight for the living.”

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