In the debate about shelters and homelessness, both sides have their numbers.
On one side, represented mostly by Mayor Rob Ford and his allies on city council, who last week voted to delay debate on the subject until next month, there’s this: 172.
That’s the number of shelter beds that went empty and unused on Feb. 8. In fact, Toronto’s shelter system has capacity each and every night, with an average vacancy rate of about four per cent.
A set of talking points sent out by Ford’s office last week asked the blunt question: “how many more empty beds should taxpayers pay for?”
But then there’s the number on the other side, represented loudly by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Recently, OCAP made headlines when they attempted to turn the mayor’s office into a shelter. They’ve since promised more action following last week’s council vote to delay.
Their number, for now, is eight.
That’s how many homeless people have died on the streets in Toronto so far in 2013. It’s a number that puts Toronto on pace to break its record for the number of street fatalities in a single year. It’s a number that everybody should be concerned with, especially when you consider that, according to the homeless memorial maintained by Church of the Holy Trinity, there have been 700 such deaths since the 1980s.
It’s a number that forces us to ask: are we the kind of city that turns a blind eye when people die on our streets?
Still, it’s important to consider the apparent contradictions in these numbers — homeless are dying even as shelter beds go reported as unused. This can’t totally be a question of inadequate funding. As they’ll tell you, the Ford administration has not made deep cuts to shelter services over the last few years. And shelter workers say that no one seeking a bed will ever be turned away.
No, this is a problem that runs deeper than numbers. It relates to a complicated tangle of issues, having to do with the availability of mental-health treatment, the lack of affordable, long-term housing options and the general state of Toronto’s shelters, some of which may offer less safety than a makeshift bed outside.
This cold winter, I don’t know that anyone can claim to have easy answers to the problems facing people forced to live on Toronto’s streets.
But I do know one thing. Solutions are not found by ignoring the problem or delaying debate, as the mayor and some city councillors voted to do last week. Progress is not made by shunting the issue to another meeting, another time. If this city is serious about bringing its people in from the cold, we have to start with a conversation.
This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/urban-compass-matt-elliott/2013/02/24/homeless-are-dying-on-toronto-streets-and-the-solution-is-about-more-than-just-funding.html on 2013-02-25T00:00:00.000Z