Toronto, you should be ashamed of yourself

 [[{“value”:”Shelter is an innate human need, but time and again it is proven that we have no right to shelter in Canada.
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How did we sink this low? How did we as a city allow bureaucrats and politicians, even a new, progressive mayor, get away with denying unhoused people proper emergency shelter and instead use city transit buses for shelter?

One of the first things I learned in nursing school was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of which shelter is one of the core physiological needs.

I memorized the hierarchy but had no idea why my nursing instructors made such a big deal about it. Growing up in the 50s and 60s in Cobourg and Kingston I saw no evidence that people did not have a roof over their head. Nor did I suspect that homelessness was going to become a national disaster within a few short decades and street nursing my career.

I have been repeatedly shocked by what I see as a street nurse.

My conclusion: There is no right to shelter in Toronto. There is no right to shelter in Canada.

As I’m sure many readers will know, I have witnessed an array of tragedies: disease outbreaks including tuberculosis and Strep A, freezing deaths, violent deaths in shelters and on the street, police brutality, people left unhoused for over a decade.

The crux of these problems has always been the housing shortage but also governments’ inattention and intentional neglect to provide adequate and safe shelter. I’ve frequently written and spoken about this, most recently in a column “Toronto continues to exhibit mediocrity in its response to homelessness.”

Today, I witnessed the worst abuse towards unhoused people that I have ever encountered.

Toronto is now sheltering unhoused people on the city’s transit buses, parked outside of a subway station.

There is no question the existing, what I call the first tier or emergency shelter system, is worn and underfunded. In many cases accessibility standards are not met, there is inadequate heating and cooling systems, and bunkbeds are still used. This system didn’t use to, but now has some minimal standards.

A second tier of shelter which began roughly 10 years ago has had several different names but is now called 24/7 respite centres. Yes there are standards, but they are of an inferior quality. One of the biggest complaints I hear about the respites is that the congregate nature of sleeping may contain 100 people in the same sleeping space, only offering a cot to sleep on.

The third tier of shelter which has existed since the late 1990s is the warming/cooling centre response, meant to fill the enormous gap of inadequate shelter capacity. It took the infamous ‘freezing deaths inquest’ in Toronto to achieve these. Of the two, warming centres are really the only option still functioning, albeit horribly. The city now tells people in need of cooling spaces to seek out splash pads, swimming pools, and malls in their Orwellian named ‘Heat Relief Network.’

Warming centre standards are abysmal, the most egregious being that the centres are only available when a temperature of -5C triggers their opening.  While City of Toronto staff widely celebrate that the trigger is no longer -15C, the resulting opening and closing of centres through winter months as temperatures fluctuates, is demeaning and obviously harmful to health and life.

It gets worse.

This winter, the city of Toronto has relegated shelter responsibility to the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). In October 2023 the city announced the use of transit buses, seemingly under the guise of transporting people on the TTC to shelter. Frontline workers quite rightly predicted there would be no shelter spaces to deliver people to. City staff indicated if that was the case people would be ‘allowed’ to stay on the bus and use the facilities inside.

Instead, within weeks five buses were relegated to shelter duty, parked outside of a downtown subway station.

The Toronto Star recently reported on an elderly man who “came off the bus pushing a shopping cart full of his possessions and descended to the streetcar platform.”

That’s elder abuse.

City statistics are mute on how many people are sleeping on the buses or what the standards are?

So, I asked the city:

“Please advise how you are meeting Toronto Shelter Standards using TTC vehicles for shelter. Please advise where these overnight shelter statistics on bus are recorded.”

Their answer is a primer on doublespeak.

“The Toronto Shelter Standards are not applied to the TTC buses, as they are not classified as shelters.   We understand the media may have referenced them as shelter buses, but they are operationally referred to and used as “Warming Buses.”   TTC is using regular buses, with additional interior heaters, as a response to last year’s winter season (2022/23) which saw an increase in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness that were using the transit system to shelter at night.

For this winter season (2023/24), TTC has been piloting the use of buses (up to 5), that provide transportation services to individuals experiencing homelessness to warming centres when they active at minus 5 degrees Celsius and/or shelters from Spadina and Union Station.   If there are no spaces available to transport individual to/from, then the buses are stationed.  These buses operate daily, regardless of weather, from 8pm to 5am for the winter season (November 15th to April 15th).

Because these buses are offering warming space, and not designated shelter space, the overnight data is not being posted with other shelter system flow data.”

Questions remain: who staffs the buses, what is the washroom and shower access, what bedding is provided, are there meals provided, how do people sleep on a bus?

Today we now understand the term social determinants of health as an improved upon description of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

To make the somewhat inaccessible term ‘social determinant of health’ relevant in my work, I always say that every children’s book is about home but it is perhaps this lovely Irish proverb that speaks most poignantly and to the heart of the issue:

“It is in the shelter of each other that people live.”

A petition appealing to the city to keep warming centres open and end reliance on buses will be presented to city council in February.

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