It’s not the first time winter has been both harmful and deadly for people who are homeless.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over 30 years as a street nurse, the dangers are not just about the winter. Homeless people suffer year long and die every month in outrageously high numbers and circumstances. In Toronto, the average age of death for a homeless woman is 39 and for a man, it is 46.
In my experience it is rare that a homeless person dies of old age. In fact, I can recall only one, but he still died homeless which is morally wrong. Instead, they are the victims of violence, trauma and health conditions caused or aggravated by lengthy homelessness, unhealthy shelter conditions and poverty. No one should die from fire in a makeshift squat, or freeze to death in a bus shelter, or literally die on a mat in a church basement, or die in an alley from an overdose, or in hospital from the tuberculosis they contracted in a shelter.
Apart from the obvious lack of affordable housing, there are simply not enough shelters and that situation is perhaps the most volatile and toxic in Toronto. The shelters are full and are forced to turn people away. The 30-year-old volunteer Out of the Cold program is full and this year also reports turning people away. The two 24 hour overnight drop-in warming centres are also full and have to turn people away. A third warming centre that operates with limited hours and access has barely made a dent in the enormous need for shelter.
While worse this year, the shelter crisis is not a new problem. Jack Layton, as a vibrant Toronto city councillor, had the audacity to show the disastrous conditions to his council mates. He arranged to show secret film footage, that activists had shot, on the council chamber’s full-size screen to speechless city councillors and the mayor.
The footage clearly showed conditions that violated human rights that would not meet the United Nations standards for refugee camps. Council voted almost unanimously that this was unacceptable and directed the Shelter Division to cap shelters at a 90 per cent capacity. That was 2003. That goal has never been met across the system, not once. In 2013, in response to evidence by front-line workers and activists, city council reaffirmed the 90 per cent motion. It’s still never been met across the system and it’s 2017.