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Human Impact Obscured in Homeless Shelter Debate
An outburst from the gallery reminds city councillors that statistics on homelessness represent human lives

The City Councillors’ meeting Wednesday morning began with cordiality and an unswerving adherence to decorum, but this serenity exploded after a disruption in the gallery broke out in response to Council rejecting a call for an emergency debate on homeless shelters.

It began shortly after 11am when Councillor Adam Vaughan gave not just a forceful and eloquent speech but a nuanced one about the threats the homeless face this particular winter. It hasn’t just been cold lately, but rainy, and this soaks all their belongings before subjecting them to a deep freeze. It’s impossible to stay dry. He cited the first iteration of what became a theme: there is a huge discrepancy between the statistics surrounding homeless shelters councillors receive from committees versus those who actually work in the shelters themselves. The former cite a surplus of beds and extrapolate that, since there are extra, there must be enough.

But Vaughan described a provincial cutback which overloads shelters, doubling their capacity, and so has forced them to evict people and send them to the Church. Moreover, he said city-wide statistics are misrepresentative: some can’t make it to a bed that is available but far away, while others get to a shelter with beds but not one for their gender. He cited issues surrounding people with disabilities, or couples having difficulty staying together. As a result, a homeless person may be forced to sleep outside even while stats show, truthfully but misleadingly, that there was a bed available. To be effective at all, homeless shelters must always have a surplus amount of beds because it’s impossible to orchestrate it in such a way so that exactly the right people have exactly the right beds in exactly the right shelters. For this he got a round of applause from the gallery, followed by a stern warning from the Speaker that clapping was not permitted.

After this, councillors Layton, Wong-Tam, Perks, Davis, Matlow, Carroll, Doucette, McConnell, Cho and Mihevc jousted for their sympathetic sound clip. The hour and a half prior to all this was so incredibly dull and civil, but suddenly an atmosphere descended on all that felt like the TVs were on and focusing on them, and if they failed to have a warm-hearted cliché at hand they would miss their moment. It’s not that they were insincere, they just knew to include a digestible sound clip. It was indeed a powerful moment, and nobody was unmoved.

Councillor Wong-Tam cited her experience in seven facilities and ten shelters, and concurred with Vaughan that the realities described by workers at all of them is completely at odds with the information that guides policy. She described a man who travelled to as many as five shelters in a night because they wouldn’t take him in. Gord Perks described the people who freeze outside as our “brothers and sisters,” which sounded hokey until he clarified that his sister lived in the streets and, “is no longer with us.” Carroll echoed this, “nobody expects their relatives will live on the street.”

The gravity in the room changed, so much so that even opponents couldn’t ignore the human dimension of these appeals. Can anyone be against protecting homeless people from death? If so, it’s impossible to call it that. Warnings of caution were issued based on a set of statistics not just different, but completely the opposite of those cited earlier. Holyday clarified that in fact there were no provincial budget cuts to homeless shelters, that there is still capacity in them as evidenced in surplus beds. He warned about “crying wolf.”  

Mammoliti criticized shelters as only a temporary and incomplete solution for a night that treats users “like cattle,” when what they need includes resources devoted to substance abuse and disabilities in order to put them on the path towards getting a job and re-establishing themselves with their families.  Moreover, he said, the shelter system we’ve had forever needs to disappear and be replaced by long term support. “If you think homelessness is going to disappear overnight, you’re dreaming in Technicolor.” Every side had scripted lines ready to deliver off the cuff.

Doug Ford described being personally moved by the sight of a homeless man sleeping on a subway grate (where warm air blows) without shoes on his way to work. Upon arriving at the office, Ford felt compelled to look into how he ended up there, and why he didn’t move to a shelter. He received in answer that some homeless prefer to sleep inside a sandbox at a park or under a bridge, rather than at a shelter where they can get their shoes stolen (it became apparent shoes are a prized commodity when so many councillors described seeing homeless people sleeping without them), or get beaten up in the night. Then, despite all the anecdotes heard to the contrary, he declared, “This city doesn’t turn anyone away.” Councillor Grimes, who sided with Ford, wondered where this motion was in the fall. Fair enough. For all the lip service paid to getting things done immediately, it is already approaching March. Since nobody but a monster would say, “Giving people a bed to sleep indoors when it’s freezing outside is a bad use of money,” nobody did exactly say this. Opponents like Councillor Norm Kelly insisted we need context for debate to work, and urged for guidelines, research, and time for committees to look things over.

All the drama that had built up hinged on the vote, and when the result came in nothing short of an explosion erupted. A young man and woman amongst the silent onlookers from OCAP shouted aloud. He first, “Shame on you council! We went to a funeral yesterday! Have you ever been down there [to the Peter shelter]? Seriously, it’s only three blocks away, go there!” The woman shouted next, “You have blood on your hands, council! No more data needed!” They continued in this vein, then people began chanting, “we’re not going to wait until March 18th [when the next data is submitted] while more people die!”

For an instant, an incredible change came over the room. Considering earlier how quickly the Speaker urged for restraint from the gallery in response to the applause, it was surprising she didn’t immediately follow protocol and silence them now, yet it felt natural to let them talk. Nobody expected the two to shout like that, but what was shocking was the total silence in the room after each thing they said. Everyone was transfixed, waiting for them to go on. It was like Ivan Ilyich realising that death isn’t an abstract thing, that it can happen to him, that it’s happening to him. His and hers were the only voices inside that room whose very tone sufficiently recognized the gravity of the situation. It was the difference between generally sympathizing with homelessness, or remembering a personal experience in the past, and feeling under the immediate impression of it.

I spoke to the man who caused the disturbance afterwards outside and he was calm and measured. He told me, in essence, he’s not just a shit disturber looking for raucous, but he goes to the Peter Street shelter regularly and he’s fed up. Who can blame him? Six homeless people have died this winter already, and homeless deaths are trending upwards. Either twenty councillors decided that money spent on the homeless isn’t worth it, or they consider the repeated anecdotes from people on the frontlines at the shelters insufficient or invalid data. Better to have a committee churn up a bureaucratically approved statistic, and systematically ignore the only people whose experience makes them worth hearing.

Put another way, can these twenty councillors look a homeless person refused from a shelter in the eye and call his missing bed a frivolous expenditure, or tell them that the budget has no space for a warm safe bed until more expert data gives them a fuller context of their plight? After the outburst, when that surreal silence descended on everyone, council couldn’t proceed without a recess because it was painfully clear that the answer to these questions is, “no.”


Jeff Halperin is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter @JDhalperin.

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