From People’s Voice
The first week of 2015 was bitterly cold in Toronto. The first week also saw the homeless population of the city decline ‑ not due to the housing policies of newly elected mayor, John Tory, or better affordability of rental housing. It dropped because two of Toronto’s homeless froze to death.
Mayor Tory and his Public Health department argued about when an “extreme cold weather alert” should be announced, and by whom. Tory also announced that two additional warming centres would be opened. Activists in the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP) saw this as a partial victory for their activities and pressure.
Torontonians responded by holding a candle‑light vigil by the bus shelter where the first homeless man was found frozen to death.
And the Toronto Star editorialized that the deaths “seem less a problem of flawed policy and more an error in judgement on the part of public health authorities.” (see “More flexibility is needed in issuing extreme cold weather alerts.” January 8, 2015)
But it was indeed the policies of the federal, provincial, and municipal governments that killed those two men, as well as the 158 people who died in Toronto’s shelters between between 2007 and 2013.
The vacancy rate in Toronto is 1.6%. A “healthy” vacancy rate, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), is 3%. Toronto’s official unemployment rate for adults is 8.8% while youth unemployment stands at17.6%. The national average is 7% and 13.4% respectively.
Federal governments over the last 20 years made it harder to receive unemployment insurance. There is still no national housing strategy, drawing the condemnation of United Nations. On any given night, 235,000 people in Canada are homeless. In the next three to five years federal subsidies to non‑profit co‑op housing will end. Thousands of families living in rent‑geared‑to income units will face eviction.
Since the mid‑1990s Ontario has seen the ending of non‑profit co‑op housing, replacement of rent control with rent regulation, welfare rates cut by 22%, and the de‑funding of pro‑tenant housing advocacy groups.
In Toronto, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of people waiting for social housing. At the end of 2013 the waiting list for social housing was 77,109 households, up by 4,413 households over the previous year. Emergency shelter use has increased as well.
In 2010 housing advocates began a Charter challenge to the Supreme Court, arguing that homeless people’s rights to equality, life, liberty and security of the person had been violated by a lack of affordable housing and cuts to social programs.
The federal and Ontario governments appealed to Ontario’s Superior Court to block the case from going to Canada’s highest court. The housing advocates brought experts to testify, and had 10,000 pages of studies and statistics to show exactly how the governments and their policies violated the human rights of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.
On September 8, 2013, a decision was reached. Mr. Justice Thomas Lederer did not disagree with any of the evidence brought forward by the homeless advocates. He acknowledged their facts. But he agreed with the governments lawyers. He said that human rights have nothing to do with economic security: “The Charter does nothing to provide assurance that we all share a right to a minimum standard of living.”
It seemed that in Canada, housing is not a human right.
The homeless advocates went to Ontario’s Court of Appeals, but on December 1, 2014, the court ruled against the homeless. Justice Gladys Pardu said that the case was political, not legal. The federal and provincial lawyers said “the Charter does not include a general right to housing or oblige governments to provide social assistance and housing support. Economic and social policies are political matters..”
The two men frozen to death on the streets of Toronto attest to the political and economic realities of life in Canada, and not to the weather.