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Austerity and Homelessness Kill in a Canadian Winter

An interview with Toronto anti-poverty activist John Clarke

by Stefan Christoff

In Toronto in January, two men died on the streets in less than 24 hours. One man succumbed to the cold in the early morning hours at a bus shelter, while the other died in an abandoned truck.

Homelessness is on the rise, a reality taking place in parallel with rising poverty rates and economic inequality across the country. The crisis has been deepening since the 1990s, when the federal Liberals shut down investments (see separate story) in affordable housing and a wave of International Monetary Fund–inspired austerity cuts hit.

In response to the freezing deaths in Toronto, activists from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) protested outside the mayor’s office. OCAP demanded action in response to the deaths, while also drawing attention to the systemic injustices facing the homeless and poor.

OCAP organizer John Clarke spoke with The Media Co-op shortly after the deaths:

“Largely as a result of community pressure, the City of Toronto has been forced to issue a ‘Daily Shelter Census.’ It shows that even with the best efforts of Shelter, Support, and Housing to understate things, the system is in crisis. Numbers using the shelters have increased considerably, and occupancy levels stand well above the 90 per cent maximum that is supposed to be in effect.

“. . . Worst of all, the bed count that the City does takes place at 4:00 am, long after many looking for a place to sleep have been turned away or given up. We have a situation in this city where even its warehouses for human beings are failing to take people in off the streets.

“The first man who died was found in a disused van in the west end of the city. Not a great deal is known, but media did make contact with family members who reported that in the past he had been turned away from shelters for being intoxicated. That is not supposed to happen, but it does and seems to have been a factor in turning this man into a ‘rough sleeper.’

“The second fatality was striking and awful in that the man froze to death in a bus shelter at Yonge and Dundas, the busiest intersection in the country. He didn’t have a coat and was wearing a hospital bracelet. The temperature was -14C, one degree shy of an Extreme Cold Weather Alert.

“People on low wages and sub-poverty social assistance find it harder than ever to stay housed. A climate of austerity is making this all worse. Tens of thousands sit for years on the waiting list for social housing, as the City boards up housing units for lack of basic repair and maintenance.

“Poor neighbourhoods are being destroyed by gentrification. All of this means that more than 4,000 people cram into shelters each night, while hundreds more sleep on the streets and tens of thousands live on the edge of destitution.

“By dismantling the system of unemployment insurance, wiping out federal housing programs and reducing payments to the provinces, Ottawa operates as the prime factor in generating austerity in the Canadian state.

“If they will let people die on the streets without access to shelter from the elements, there is really nothing that the austerity agenda won’t target. The only limit that can be placed on this is to mobilize against them and to do so in a fashion that they can’t ignore.

“Direct action needs to be built, but truly on a scale that represents mass defiance and resistance. If we can do that, we can talk about driving back austerity and indeed start to talk in real and meaningful terms about the kind of society we want to create, rather than the one they want to impose on us.”


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