Luke Savage is a Toronto-based writer who works at the Broadbent Institute.
After weeks of public outcry and sustained pressure from activists, Toronto Mayor John Tory seems to have grudgingly conceded that the shelter system is seriously overcrowded and inadequate after all.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. Tory announced his intention to open two new warming centres for the homeless amid the increasingly biting winter cold. (Reversing his earlier opposition, he also requested that the federal government open the Moss Park Armoury for emergency use - a request that was granted on Friday.) While these are undoubtedly welcome developments, those in need of warmth and shelter should never have had to endure the increasingly frigid weather or suffer at the hands of an all too inadequate response from the city.
How exactly did it come to this?
In the short term, Mr. Tory himself certainly bears much of the blame. His response to the growing crisis in early December was widely panned by activists for being insufficient, and it was the mayor himself who rounded up the votes to defeat a motion tabled by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam that would have asked the federal government to open up two armouries for use as emergency shelters (something that's been done several times before). Reacting to the ensuing criticism from activists and homelessness advocates including Cathy Crowe and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Mr. Tory irresponsibly sought to discredit their claims and demands by spinning statistics about occupancy levels.
As Bianca Wylie observes, data about shelter use has become something of a political weapon. That shelters may not technically be full can easily obscure the fact that beds aren't always practically available to those who need them to escape the cold. Moreover, as activists and front-line workers such as Zoë Dodd, Gillian Kolla, and Doug Johnson have demonstrated, city officials seem to have been telling some people there were no beds despite claims from the mayor's office that the system wasn't at capacity.
This apparent conflict over data has ultimately exposed a much deeper rot, not only in Toronto's overall attitude toward poverty and homelessness but in the character of the political consensus that governs it – one that has elevated the market above all else and substituted real human needs for cold economic calculus. Indeed, the city has increasingly become a place of public decay amidst private affluence; one where underfunded infrastructure and social services are allowed to co-exist with scorching condo booms and lucrative financial speculation; where an expensive rental market quite literally drives people onto the streets; where, amidst unfathomable wealth, some citizens are forced to suffer in the cold while officials prevaricate about the availability of shelter beds in overcrowded facilities.
This state of affairs has long been mirrored by a penny-pinching ethos dominating both city hall and the upper levels of government. Instead of assessing need, public policy in Canada has increasingly concerned itself with "finding efficiencies." That has meant cutting costs and reducing the quality of public services, while slashing taxes and public spending and taking an ever more removed and technocratic eye to the actual human consequences. This has been the modus operandi for many governments since 1994 when then finance minister Paul Martin declared it was time for Canada to "get its fiscal house in order."
In many ways, our public services – municipal, provincial, and federal – continue to live in the shadow of the trickle-down austerity that followed and the cultural mindset it aided in creating. It was a 2004 auditor-general's report, after all, that helped trigger destructive alarmism about wasteful shelter spending when it emerged the city had spent the paltry sum of $853,000 over three years on emergency beds that went unused. As the current crisis shows, such a mindset is not only inadequate when it comes to meeting needs but ultimately puts people's lives at risk.
The problems facing Toronto's shelter system and their root causes aren't going to be solved without heavy lifting. As groups like the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario have argued, fixing short-term inadequacies will have to be paired with a more sweeping strategy involving all three levels of government to improve income security, strengthen mental health, addiction, and overdose prevention services, and make affordable housing the national priority it used to be.
None of these things can or will happen until we acknowledge that the austerity consensus in public policy has been a failure; that real efficiency means actually meeting human needs rather than perpetually looking for and inventing new ways to cut public spending; that moral considerations should always come before coldly technocratic ones; and that allowing poverty and suffering to persist amidst affluence is not an inevitability but rather a political choice.