Toronto’s City Council voted yesterday, February 8, against funding 24-hour warming centres to help people experiencing homelessness survive the winter. Buildings like the Scarborough Civic Centre or Metro Hall only open when the weather drops to -15.
They voted to “study” the issue, which is what they say to avoid sounding cheap when they don’t want to fund something straightforward. In voting against funding the warming centres, council rejected recommendations from the city’s own Board of Health.
What should homeless people do if it’s -14? Wait to see if temperatures drop another degree? There are no spots in shelters. City officials dispute that, but of course they do. The reality is people get denied entry at shelters every single night because there’s no space.
People slip through the cracks in lots of ways, but here is one. Let’s say a nearby shelter has a space for you, but you have a partner, and it’s not co-ed, or a pet they refuse to allow in. What do you? Even if there is a spot at a shelter across town that would fit all your needs, what good is it if you don’t know it’s there? And say you do know there might be such a spot, would you pay the rising TTC fare to trek across the city to check?
That many people feel safer not in a shelter, in their own tent, is a scathing indictment of our shelter system, which after all isn’t supposed to exist! It’s only meant as a last resort. Ideally, shelters should be phased out as people move from the streets into homes. Instead, we’re phasing shelters and even warming centres out while homelessness is rapidly increasing.
I covered Toronto City Hall for a pretty bleh/low-quality online outlet in 2013, Toronto Standard. I didn’t really know fuck-all about politics, but I’ll never forget attending my first city council meeting, when OPAC protesters unfurled a banner accusing city council of having blood on its hands for failing to provide ample shelters. They weren’t just being hyperbolic; they had recently returned from funerals of friends who died.
When people make charged claims like “this council has blood on its hands” or “people are dying,” it’s liable to sound like exaggeration, or like a heavy-handed rhetorical device designed to illicit response in an argument or debate. But it’s a neutral, accurate description of what’s going on. This was in 2013, well before John Tory or the pandemic.
When this city would like money to fund, for example, hosting five World Cup soccer games in 2026, $300 million suddenly appears out of thin air from local, provincial, and federal governments. Magic! Modern, sensible cities everywhere are freeing up real estate, beautifying prominent spaces, improving street safety, reducing pollution, and improving public health and joy by removing obsolete urban highways; instead, John Tory has chosen to pour over $1 billion to repair the crumbling Gardiner Highway. The city had money, but he wasted it.
We’ve seen huge increases in the costs of housing and food, while austerity budgets phase out or severely reduce public services. TTC fares are rising yet again, while bus routes are axed and passengers wait longer for subways. Yes, the pandemic hasn’t improved anybody’s mental health, but the conditions John Tory opted for are not exactly boosting public morale. Unsurprisingly, there’s been a rise in violence. How did Tory respond? By finding $8 million dollars so 80 cops can circulate the TTC system. This comes after giving Toronto cops an additional $50 million.
The self-proclaimed fiscally-responsible Strong Mayor looked astonished when asked point blank by a representative from the organization TTC Riders to justify the increased spending, given the $50 million price tag and the disconnect between the crisis Torontonians face and the police’s total inability to address the problems’ root causes. The squirming, terrified, what-do-I-do-now? look on his face is that of a person unaccustomed to actual questions, who often speaks in public but never without a script, a script they know is total horseshit.
In what felt like mere minutes after the 2022 mayoral election, Doug Ford, the belligerent ex-city councilor, who in vengeance in 2018 cut council in half mid-election, suddenly gave John Tory “strong mayor” powers. In 2018, Toronto city council had 45 members. Now it has 25. A few months ago, a two-thirds majority was required to pass bylaws. Now, it’s 1/3rd. In other words, instead of needing the support of 30 councillors, now it’s merely eight. (Fewer people for Vaughan condo developers to bribe?)
The argument that this would help Tory bypass “red tape” or other hurdles interfering with Getting Things Done doesn’t really make sense, since nobody could point to a major vote he lost in his two prior tenures as mayor. He was never held back, he just wanted more power. The current conservative party leader gave the former conservative party leader more power. Favours. (These two politicians also hate each other considerably, as Ford lost the 2018 mayoral race to Tory, before winning the provincial election Tory lost when he led the party.)
Homelessness predates Tory. In 2019, Nicholas Hune-Brown’s devastating account of Toronto homelessness serves as a reminder that the crisis we’re facing isn’t caused by the pandemic, even if things have worsened enormously since. In 2018, I received a visitor from India stunned by the homelessness she saw in downtown Toronto. As gut-wrenching as homelessness is, when your country has the complicated colonial history of India, and a host of problems we don’t have in Toronto, perhaps people living on the street feels tragic but inevitably. But in a wealthy city like Toronto? What’s the excuse? There was no excuse then and there still isn’t one.
John Tory himself said his “strong mayor” powers would make him more accountable to voters. Let that be the case, then. City council is gradually shrinking to do his bidding, so this is John Tory’s humanitarian crisis.