My first time reporting on Toronto City Hall in early 2013, Rob Ford’s council debated on whether to fund more emergency beds for people experiencing homelessness. Unsurprisingly, council put it off, saying more studies needed to be done, etc. Politicians invoke the word “studies” when they don’t want to fund things for poor people, but don’t want to appear heartless.
Immediately after the vote activists rose in the chamber, unfurled a banner and denounced the council for having “blood on [their] hands.” If that sounds dramatic, know the previous day they had attended the funeral of a friend who died on the streets of Toronto. They shouted lucid and undeniable arguments, a silence really did hang in the room, then security escorted them out.
That was six years ago, and Toronto’s problem has grown.
Since this time I lived for over a year in India. For most of it, I lived in a posh sector just outside Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh, near my office in a company guest house, among retired judges and lawyers and military people. In January 2017 I moved to Lajpat Nagar II, where my neighbours included Afghan refugees.
Honestly, I didn’t see many expats in Lajpat II, (when immigrants are white they’re called “expats”), but I had an Italian friend in Lajpat IV. My real estate agent (finding an apartment requires one) lived in an apartment down the street from me with his family, but I regularly saw merchants sleeping on the streets next to their stalls, on charpoys, cots of woven rope. They slept among the homesless dogs.
There was a Gurdwara near me, a Sikh temple of worship that helps feed people. Honestly, I didn’t learn enough Hindi to talk with the poor people around me, and even if I did, I couldn’t have come even close to understanding their world. I grew up in Forest Hill: I can’t understand the life of a homeless person in Toronto, never mind there. One time I gave a legless beggar, wheeling himself on a wooden platform, 100 rupees ($2) and he cried and said nobody has ever given him so much. (My friend translated).
But here? In Toronto? I’ve seen people arrive to downtown Toronto straight from India, and they are appalled by the homelessness. Amid such wealth, in such a clean city? It’s unconscionable. The sight of people dying in slow motion on the street amid such robust prosperity shakes them.
India is notorious for its poverty, for its slums. India used to be the richest country on Earth, and it was plundered, and now amid a booming middle class, as Western Businesses compete for their share of this new money, Indians don’t believe they’re a poor country anymore. This may stun people in Canada, for whom India is synonymous with poverty, but many there don’t.
I was in an editorial meeting the day Snapchat’s CEO reportedly said he didn’t want to invest in poor countries, such as Spain and India. This remark didn’t go over well in India. But wasn’t it…true? Sudhir Chaudhary wondered how the man could say such a thing! And the room agreed. There like here, journalists come from wealthier backgrounds—nobody else could afford to rise in an industry that often pays in “exposure.” (Believe that this affects coverage of money, homelessness, power…)
Anyway, so how exactly does a country measure its wealth?
Forget India for now. Here, things are not OK. According to the 2016 census (the most recent available), the average 2015 income for a Toronto male over 15 was $33,456. If a one-bedroom is $1,500 a month (no roommate, but that’s a good price), subtract $19,200 from that. Toronto has a higher share of high-income earners than the rest of Canada and Ontario, and a higher share of low-income earners in both. People here are generally very rich or very poor.
Anecdotally, the oldish but spacious two-bedroom, two-storey apartment I rented in late 2010 by Trinity Bellwoods cost $1600, plus hydro. Today, the landlord wanted to charge $3,000. We all know this story.
How best to crunch the numbers, which stats are most useful in representing Toronto’s wealth, is interesting to consider and it’s important for framing policy, but the fact is Toronto has slums and people are dying and nobody is talking about it.
Consider all the media attention gun violence is currently getting. In 2018, an especially violent year, we had 95 homicides. This is a crisis too! But over 100 homeless people die each year in Toronto. Contrast the silence in the media regarding the deaths of people experiencing homelessness with that of gun violence. Again, obviously gun violence is a major issue, but more people die in Toronto from…from what? From being poor. Or depressed, or having no support.
As Toronto-born Robbie Robertson wrote: “I’ve just spent 60 days in the jail house, for the crime of having no dough, now here I am back out on the street, for the crime of having nowhere to go.”
This is a time of supposedly divisive politics, but doesn’t everybody care about this? Can anybody hear these stories neglect, of needless human suffering on a shocking scale amid such wealth, of death, and shrug? Does anybody think that Free Markets determine the cost of things, so people should just…die? Do people think this?
Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote an absolutely must-read article in Toronto Life about homelessness in this city. He spoke to people living under the Gardiner Expressway and in Rosedale, he drew up the most relevant stats, and really, the article was as fantastic at capturing the different dimensions of this crisis as the crisis is depressing.
Citing stats, he says the line up to receive subsidized housing in Toronto is 98,000 people long, roughly two full Sky Domes. Toronto builds 500 units of affordable housing each year. There are about 8,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, currently. This number is growing steadily. The article points out that housing a person with mental health needs in Toronto’s housing system costs $59,000, whereas subsidized housing costs $21,089—roughly a third of the cost.
I’m sure there’s a policy solution to this, but whatever it is it’ll takes years and lots more people will die. I don’t know what should be done.
The activists I saw in 2013 were 100% correct. Rob Ford’s council had blood on its hands. So does Tory’s. Rob’s brother Doug is gutting social programs left right and centre and transferring this money, rebranded as “efficiencies,” to Toronto’s wealthiest people. I think our political class are essentially slum landlords.
But again, nobody enjoys the fact that people are homeless, starving, freezing, and dying. Right? I talk with Conservative voters, and right-leaning people who feel politically abandoned because Ford is an obvious illiterate maniac but they don’t like Trudeau, and (through media conditioning, I think) in their bones cannot stomach the thought of voting NDP. Everyone agrees homelessness matters though.
But nobody wants to pay for it. Not really. They say they would, but it never happens. This is about power, but it’s also about the psychological gulf between wealthy people who just never, never actually have meaningful interactions with these people. It’s out of sight out of mind. “Ohhhhh, you don’t know the shape I’m in.”
Devote tax dollars to this. Please!
During a flash-freeze last year I walked around giving people I saw on the street some gloves and toques and some money. In India, this is a type of jugaad—the Hindi word for a MaGyver, basically—an improvised solution with whatever is at hand. I have an Indian buddy who recently visited Russia, and he made some videos wherein he described to someone that in India, for many people, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is upside, where spiritual needs are addressed first and foremost, then they move towards food and shelter.
Frankly, in Toronto I see a lot of overpriced yuppie ice cream and tacos, Uber Eats charging $35 for a small dinner that arrives cold (delivered by a “driver partner” not an employee, so the US company is conveniently exempt from the Employee Standards Act), people either in despair over the cost of renting and buying a house and ready to seriously leave Toronto, or they’re excited about the cute back splash in their new kitchen…
There’s either a lot of money in this city, or none. But I don’t expect homelessness to get addressed in a meaningful way when this same city is full of people livid at the thought of workers, workers, earning literally only $1 more an hour.
Again, I hope I’m wrong! I do think everyone cares on a basic level about this. But this isn’t quite about morals…everyone feels bad, it’s about money. Hopefully Hune-Brown’s article will galvanize public opinion and politicians will believe there’s actually a will to fuel change. It was just published and is getting air time.
But if the life and death of 100 people a year truly depends on good Samaritans, Toronto is a sad place to live.
Only a couple weeks ago, a woman at Bloor and Dovercourt was trying to get clothes from a donation box. She got stuck inside and died. Days later, a man sleeping on the streets in the Financial District was run over by a garbage truck. He died too. The driver didn’t see him. Stop for a minute: consider the symbolism and visualize the reality of the Financial District’s stupendous wealth, as a human being lies on the street one morning in an alley, and suddenly his life over, run over by a garbage truck.
Please, I hope we can all agree we need comprehensive and well-funded policy right away so people don’t die on our streets. Be mad. Whatever our political differences I refuse to believe people in my city are OK with this.