It was a juxtaposition that would have been funny were it not so damn sad: Last Friday, Mayor Rob Ford visited the car show, press gallery in tow. Some of the photos the reporters periodically tweeted out included Ford sitting in a $90,000 Dodge Viper, Ford sitting in a $360,000 McLaren Spyder, and Ford sitting in a $571,000 Rolls Royce. Meanwhile the anti-poverty group Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) staged a sit-in outside his office at City Hall.
Ford took questions. About the cars, he said his favourite was the Rolls. About the OCAP protestors, he asked, “Why are they doing it?”
At City Hall, OCAP activists and homeless people gave some pretty clear indications, chanting, “No more homeless deaths!” Zoe Dodd, one of the protestors, told the National Post, “When people are dying on our streets [politicians] need to act like it’s an emergency.”
The contrast wasn’t particularly remarkable in the news cycle of Toronto politics. There was Rob Ford, doing his Rob Ford thing of posing for photos. There was OCAP, doing their OCAP thing of protesting until the police forced them to move. All part of the routine, right?
That the answer to that question may be “yes” is the saddest part. Because here’s what those protestors were upset about: There are approximately 5,000 homeless people in Toronto, according to the latest available statistics from the city. On any given night, about 400 of them actually sleep on the street. Since the start of 2012, at least 41 homeless people have died. And during these past few frigid weeks alone, six people have died on the street.
In the biggest, richest city in Canada—in the biggest province in one of the world’s most affluent countries—people are forced to sleep outside in the February cold. Many more are offered shelter in unsafe, bedbug-plagued warehouses, where they line up for entry and are kicked out in the morning. Our fellow citizens are sleeping in the street, and dying there.
Meanwhile, Rob Ford goes to the car show. The provincial government spends hundreds of thousands on advertisements promoting a casino in Toronto. The federal government recently debated zombie attacks.
If it seems like I’m pointing fingers, let me say that on Friday, I took my children to see a dinosaur exhibit at the museum. I am glad I’m able to do things like that with my family, and I’m glad I live in a city that hosts big trade shows and is home to cultural attractions, in a country where a little levity can spice up debate in Parliament. The shame is not in enjoying the car show or discussing zombies or visiting the museum. The shame is in doing so while ignoring a human disaster on our streets.
The reality is that we could ensure no one has to sleep on the street (of course, solving the many underlying causes of homelessness is a whole other thing). It’s much less complicated than many social issues: If someone can’t afford a place to live, give them one. We’ve been doing so since 2005, through the Streets to Homes Program, but not for enough people, and without the urgency that the situation demands.
It’s not that it’s prohibitively expensive: Housing all the homeless might actually be cheaper than dealing with them through shelters, policing, and hospitals. But even if it is more expensive, we’re talking about 5,000 people. We could rent every one of them a luxury one-bedroom apartment for about $120 million a year—which is almost exactly how much was cut from the city’s shelter and housing budget this year. The federal government spent over a billion dollars on security and infrastructure for an international summit in Toronto a couple years ago. The provincial government recently spent $230 million to cancel the construction of gas plants. The city of Toronto is looking at spending $500 million on the Gardiner. Housing the homeless is not a cost problem. A $4 levy on utility bills for residents and businesses across the GTA would raise $120 million per year.
The problem is we’ve come to think of it as routine that people will live on the street. We get distracted by fancy cars, flashy casino proposals, and cool museum stuff. There should never be anything routine about people living on the street in a city as affluent as ours. We should fix it now.