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Austerity and homelessness kill in Canadian winter

interview with John Clarke from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP)

by Stefan Christoff

photo : homeless person on Toronto winter streets
photo : homeless person on Toronto winter streets
As winter winds sweep Canada’s major cities, people are freezing to death on the streets. 
 
In Toronto this past week, two men died on the streets in less than 24 hours. One man, believed to be in his 50s, succumbed to the cold in the early morning hours inside a bus shelter at Yonge-Dundas Square, the other man in his 60s, died inside an abandoned delivery truck near Davenport Road. 
 
Homelessness is on the rise in Canada, a reality taking place in parallel to growing poverty rates and economic inequality across the country, a crisis deepening since the 1990s when the federal Liberal government withdrew major investments in affordable housing, within a wave of IMF-inspired austerity cuts.
 
In response to the freezing deaths in Toronto activists from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) held a direct action protest outside of the offices of recently elected Toronto Mayor, John Tory. OCAP demanded action in response to the death, while also drawing attention to the systemic injustices facing the homeless and poor in Toronto and beyond. 
 
John Clarke, an organizer with OCAP, responds to a series of questions that I sent concerning the crisis of homelessness in Toronto. As mainstream media reporting has generally failed to look at the freezing deaths in Toronto within a broader economic and political context, these responses from John offer some much needed context to the systems of unjust power that create the conditions for people to die on the streets during winter. — Stefan Christoff
 
Stefan : Over the past week in Toronto two homeless people have died on the streets, due to winter cold, deaths more broadly linked to economic realities of Canada's largest city, where there is a massive homeless population. Could you highlight some key, but under-reported facts about homelessness in Toronto and how is illustrates a broader socio-economic injustice?
 
John : Largely as a result of community pressure, the City of Toronto has been forced to issue a 'Daily Shelter Census'. It shows that, even with the best efforts of Shelter and Housing Support to understate things, the system is in crisis. Numbers using the shelters have increased considerably and occupancy levels stand well above the 90% maximum that is supposed to be in effect. 
 
However, the 93% level they have been putting out disregards the fact that the church based 'Out of the Cold' program is having to provide shelter outside of the official system. The figure is arrived at by including family motels and 'transitional' beds that are not available someone showing up looking for a bed for the night. Worst of all, the bed count that the City does takes place at 4.00 AM, long after many looking for a place to sleep have been turned away or given up. We have a situation in this City where, even its warehouses for human beings, are failing to take people in off the streets. 
 
Stefan : Could you highlight anything about the two people who died, often homeless people die as statistics, any sense of the humanity that has been lost?
 
John : The first man who died was found in a disused van in the west end of the City. Not a great deal is known but media did make contact with family members who reported that, in the past, he had been turned away from shelters for being intoxicated. That is not supposed to happen but it does and seems to have been a factor in turning this man into a 'rough sleeper'. 
 
The second fatality was striking and awful in that the man froze to death in a bus shelter at Yonge and Dundas, the busiest intersection in the country. He didn't have a coat and was wearing a hospital bracelet. The temperature was -14c, one degree above the level where an extreme cold weather alert is supposed to be called.
 
Stefan : In response OCAP organized protests and actions to demand that John Tory, the newly elected mayor of Toronto, take action on this issue, why were these protests important to do? 
 
I ask that in the context of a situation where mainstream media and opposition politicians at city hall were most likely speaking out about the deadly realities of homelessness given the freezing temperatures, but it was only when you protested that action was taken, that's my understanding, could you explain?
 
John : The OCAP protest that took place was really a kind of a direct action precision strike that really paid off. We were preparing to mobilize for court support for five women members arrested on November 25 for going into a City office and demanding 24 hour safe space for homeless women and trans people. When the second death took place, we decided that we had to act immediately and gathered up a thirty person delegation to the Mayor's office on Tuesday. We arrived as they were meeting to discuss the deaths. 
 
A whole group of us managed to get right into the reception area of the office and defied demands to leave. There was considerable media attention by now and the Mayor and his people had a problem. The Board of Health was not calling a cold weather alert so, with OCAP right on his doorstep, Mayor John Tory had to order Shelter and Housing Support to open additional warming spaces anyway. Even after the official alert was removed, Tory has kept these spaces open and acknowledged that they system is 'over capacity.'
 
Stefan : Homelessness and generalized poverty on the rise in Toronto, despite the massive wealth in the city. Could you explain why this is the case in regards to actual policies by those in power, just one of two examples.
 
John : People on low wages and sub poverty social assistance find it harder than ever to stay housed. A climate of austerity is making this all worse. Tens of thousands sit for years on the waiting list for social housing, as the City boards up housing units for lack of basic repair and maintenance. 
 
Poor neighbourhoods are being destroyed by gentrification. All of this means that more than 4000 people cram into shelters each night while, hundreds more sleep on the streets and tens of thousands live on the edge of destitution
 
Stefan : How is poverty and homelessness in Toronto being compounded by the realities of austerity and being imposed on public institutions by the federal Conservative government?
 
John : By dismantling the system of unemployment insurance, wiping out federal housing programs and reducing payments to the provinces, Ottawa operates as the prime factor in generating austerity in the Canadian state.
 
Stefan : Why is direct action and important way to respond to these realities?
 
John : If they will let people die on the streets without access to shelter from the elements, there is really nothing that the austerity agenda won't target. The only limits that can be placed on this is to mobilize against them and to do so in a fashion that they can't ignore.  
 
Direct action needs to be built but truly on a scale that represents mass defiance and resistance. If we can do that, we can talk about driving back austerity and, indeed, start to talk in real and meaningful terms about the kind of society we want to create rather than the one they want to impose on us.
 
John Clarke is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) @johnocap, Stefan is a writer, community organizer and musician in Montreal who contributes to the Media Co-op, @spirodon

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Stefan Christoff (Stefan Christoff)
Montreal, Quebec
Member since April 2010

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Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, community organizer and musician.

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