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Nameless and homeless: Affordable housing—if not now, when?

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Remember their names:

  • Eugene Upper
  • Erwin Anderson
  • Mirsalah Aldin-Kompani

and hundreds more who died on Toronto streets since ‘97

From Nameless-Homeless, an unpublished rant in progress

Here’s the grim context. Today, it’s widely acknowledged that the “deinstitutionalization” of psychiatric survivors has been a total failure and fraud; it was from the very start. Why? Because of government incompetence and negligence, poor urban planning, and public indifference to “discharged” psychiatric survivors and other poor, marginalized and stigmatized people in our communities.

Since the 1960s, more and more psycho-prisons have been shut down; yet there was, and still is, virtually no affordable and accessible housing built for the many thousands of people who have ended up on city streets as a result. As inner-city refugees, homeless psychiatric survivors, forcibly drugged, traumatized and discriminated against, frequently have no safe place to go. For all too many, the street, a shelter or an emergency ward are the only alternatives.

Over the past 40 years, this homelessness crisis has escalated in major cities across Canada and the United States. Tragically for the many thousands of vulnerable, alienated and traumatized people fraudulently labelled “mentally ill” in our allegedly caring and just society, high-rise condominiums for the rich have become the top priority for the corporate CEOs and real estate developers who control and manipulate the “housing market”, instead of affordable and accessible housing. For these greedy capitalists, the bottom line is always profit, not people. Toronto today is so saturated with condos and other high-rise apartment buildings on virtually every city block that it should be called Condo City or New York North.

As you read this, thousands of homeless psychiatric survivors are struggling to survive on the street and in overcrowded and violence-ridden shelters where they are often exposed to tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases. According to the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee that tracks homeless deaths, approximately 500 homeless people have died since 2000. Faced with minimal community support and an almost complete lack of alternatives, many are forced back into psychiatric hospitals or wards, where they’re drugged, degraded and traumatized all over again. On the street, these survivors are easy targets for the psychiatric police.

In Ontario, these agents of social control are called assertive community treatment teams (ACTTs) or Mobile Crisis Teams (each of the latter “teams” consist of a psychiatric nurse and an armed plainclothes police officer who ride around in unmarked police cars). Our government put these people in place to enforce draconian community treatment orders (CTOs), which authorize outpatient forced drugging and arrests of survivors refusing psychiatric “medication” or “voluntary” hospitalization.

Ten years ago, at a public meeting of the Toronto City Council’s Neighbourhoods Committee, I tried to convince those in attendance that affordable and supportive housing for psychiatric survivors and other marginalized people was urgently needed. I pointed out that affordable housing should replace all psychiatric facilities, including the notorious Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and that government-funded housing initiatives could save not only the health and lives of thousands of survivors and others, but also millions of tax dollars every year. All that was needed was the political will; there is still no national affordable housing strategy in Canada.

My request was apparently too controversial or radical for this city committee to consider. The concerns voiced by several of us activists were greeted by committee chair Joe Pantalone and the other councillors with total silence. Not one asked us any questions; not one made a comment. These politicians simply refused to listen; they tuned us out. Perhaps we were too idealistic. But at least we were serious, clearly articulating our issues and concerns based on our close and continuing contact with hundreds of homeless and under-housed psychiatric survivors and other homeless brothers and sisters on the street. Frequently participating with homeless people in the occupation of vacant buildings and other direct actions to dramatize Toronto’s escalating homelessness/housing crisis, we demanded, and still demand, political action.

During the last 10 years, together with many other social justice activists, I have delivered similar messages to other city officials. As usual, the response was minimal or token action–no firm commitment; no official announcement of building plans or timelines. During the last five years, fewer than 5,000 affordable or “social housing” units have been built in Toronto; at least 50,000 are needed. Consider these facts cited in a 2010 Housing Connections report there were:

  • 140,649: total number of people on Housing Connections centralized waiting list for social housing in Toronto as of Sept. 30, 2010.
  • 29,917: number of children under the age of 17 on household applications for social housing; this number is in addition to 13,190 single parents.

Before he decided not to seek re-election as Toronto’s mayor in 2010, David Miller once agreed that building 3,000 social housing units a year in Toronto was a reasonable and necessary target. However, despite their publicly voiced concerns, Miller and Toronto City Council (along with provincial government officials) have repeatedly and shamelessly done virtually nothing. They have been content to congratulate themselves on token housing initiatives, such as building a few hundred housing units a year or releasing a few million dollars for renovating existing, run-down rooming houses and shelters.

At community meetings preceding the 2010 municipal election, not one candidate running for Toronto City Council proposed, much less demanded, an affordable housing strategy for the city. The plight of homeless people was not a priority issue. In keeping with the current political climate of callous indifference to homeless and other poor people, no target figures or housing strategies have even been discussed, much less announced, and the need for supportive housing goals and strategies for psychiatric survivors has been completely ignored.

This, despite the following facts:

  • Well over 70,000 citizens have been on Toronto’s social-housing waiting list for several years.
  • There are currently more than 140,000 households on affordable-housing waiting lists across Toronto.
  • There are currently 1.5 million homeless people, including over half-a-million poor children, in Canada, struggling to survive on under-funded government welfare and disability support programs that grudgingly provide single individuals with approximately $550 a month forrent.

The average rent for a bachelor apartment in downtown Toronto is $800. Adding insult to injury, Ontario’s Liberal government plans to eliminate its Special Diet Allowance program in 2010 or 2011. Conceived and initiated by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the Special Diet program has been hugely successful; during the last three years it has provided an additional, desperately needed a $250 monthly food allowance for many thousands of poor and unemployed people, psychiatric survivors and others with disabilities or serious medical conditions. Many Special Diet recipients are immigrants and refugees from Somalia and other African countries. This is just one more example of government-sanctioned injustice and racial discrimination in the ruling establishment’s continuing war against the poor.

Houses – Not Psycho-prisons

All this leads me to the radical proposal of abolishing all psychiatric facilities, and replacing them with decent, affordable housing and other non-medical, community-based alternatives.

In 2009, Ontario’s mental health budget was an astronomical $34 billion. What a waste of money, and, more importantly, what a tragic waste of people’s health and lives! For a fraction of that cost, besides saving millions of Medicare dollars, we could build thousands of affordable, low-cost houses, crisis/healing and drug withdrawal centres; completely eliminate homelessness in Canada; and, above all, save thousands of lives each year.

A world without psychiatry? Obviously, we are not there yet. However, I am hopeful that when psychiatric survivors, anti-psychiatry activists, antipoverty and housing advocates, social justice and human rights activists, and other allies and supporters come together, we could become an unstoppable global movement for freedom from psychiatric oppression and for human rights, that day will come. And that’s a vision worth fighting for.

Don Weitz is an anti-psychiatry and social justice activist in Toronto. He is a member of the Coordinating Committee of the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault, and member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. He is also co-editor of Shrink Resistant: The Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada.

This article is an excerpt from “A Radical Vision,” from his unpublished manuscript, Act Out/Fight Back/Write On: Selected Writings of an Antipsychiatry Activist.

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