Toronto’s homeless death crisis is the sort of social catastrophe the Ontario NDP was created to fight. Yet, the current party is offering little in the way of solutions.
Toronto Public Health data shows nearly two homeless Torontonians died every week in 2017, bringing the total to 94. The causes of death haven’t been released but, TPH data shows fatalities spiked in January, February and July. In 2018, one person died and eleven more were hospitalized following a flu outbreak at the Seaton House, the largest homeless shelter in the city. Further yearly updates won’t be available until April, but in recent weeks, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty has circulated disturbing video of a body bag being hauled out of another shelter.
The crisis was rightly called “Dickensian” by Sarah Polley, a writer for the Toronto Star. It’s a striking comparison. The London Charles Dickens wrote about drove a group of Fabians, Socialists, labour radicals and not a few Marxists to assemble the policies and activists that formed the base of the Labour Party. It was the Dickensian crisis which struck Canada in the 1930s which consciously drove Frank Underhill, Agnes MacPhail, F.R Scott and much of the best of Ontario’s left to do the same in Regina. There, they drafted the NDP’s founding document.
They returned to a rally of thirty thousand in Lambton Park, recounted by Gerald Caplan in The Dilemma of Canadian Socialism. They promised to act not as politicians but as “crusaders for humanity,” fighting tirelessly to save Toronto’s disadvantaged from homelessness, exploitation and deprivation of all kinds.
That’s the sort of leadership we need as we face what Homeless Hub calls “mass homelessness.” The organization says massive cuts to social housing, structural economic shifts and reduced spending on social supports massively increased Toronto’s homeless population.
2017 was the first year Toronto bothered counting homeless deaths. But the homeless memorial outside the Church of the Holy Trinity has added 900 names since 1985.
Yet, facing the present crisis, the Ontario NDP is barely recognizable. Though the party is correct in locating austerity as the cause of the crisis, the NDP misses the second part of effective leadership: pointing to a way out.
“The Wynne government had a hand in creating this mess,” leader Andrea Horwath says, “through years of cuts and freezes, ranging from eliminating Toronto’s Pooling Compensation, to underfunding social housing.”
The downloading of social housing responsibilities from the provincial to the municipal level, the elimination of Pooling Compensation and the capping of the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative have undoubtedly made resources scarce. But the NDP’s solution leaves much to be desired. The provincial party leader hasn’t committed to keeping existing shelter space and social housing open.
If elected, the party committed to covering “one-third of the costs of repairs to affordable and social housing units in partnership with municipalities and the federal government.”
To stop the closure of social housing units requiring repairs, Toronto needs $1.6 billion. Though the city pulled together $160 million to stop 2018 closures, there’s no guarantee that will be possible next year. The federal government has not committed to stopping closures, either. With a growing repair backlog and no guarantee of adequate funding, this sees the NDP possibly content with two-thirds of units slated-for-closure closing. That will increase demand for shelter space and worsen the crisis.
The party’s platform is slightly more promising: “New Democrats will meet the province’s responsibility to repair social housing and shelters across Ontario.” Despite this, however, there’s no commitment to building units or expanding service. This does little to address shelter overcrowding and long housing wait lists.
It’s unclear who the NDP thinks it’s winning over by shunning Toronto’s poor.
The party is supposed to fight for the oppressed. If it’s unable to put forward demands which keep Toronto’s poorest from dying in the streets, what and who does the NDP stand for?
There’s no reason why this needs to be viewed as a crisis only for the currently poor, either. The economic shifts and the effects of austerity described by research coalition Homeless Hub, affect all working people in Toronto. In Globalization, Precarious Work and the Food Bank, Ernie Lightman, Andrew Mitchell and David Herd write that with the onset of grinding austerity brought about by the Common Sense Revolution in 1995 , the number of food bank users in Toronto jumped from 115,000 to 170,000. That jump resulted from policies aimed at destroying income support and other social programs to weaken the bargaining floor.
Having a reserve army of desperate people locked out of obtaining social housing or welfare and desperate to take any job on any terms is great way to dismantle labour protections. And the ruling class knows it. Back in 1994, the OECD recommended slashing social programs not only to lower the tax burden, but also to maximize “labour market flexibility.”
There’s no doubt this is part of the reason why wages have been stagnant for as long as they have. But, more crucially, it suggests the number of currently-housed people on the edge of dying on Toronto’s streets is appallingly high.
It’s left people with nowhere to turn. And, people in that position tend to keep their heads down.
In the face of a ruling class ready to use not just dehumanizing pauperism but deadly pauperism to scare its workforce into line, Toronto’s poor need representatives who fight to defend all social housing units and shelter space.
The NDP needs to recapture its humanity if it is to remain at all relevant. Working Canadians do not need another party of enemies.
Mitchell Thompson is a writer and journalism student living in Toronto.