Toronto's Dead Multitudes

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by Chris Cook

A couple of weeks past, a small group of Toronto's citizens observed a grim milestone in Canada's richest city; the marking of a memorial for the 500th Canadian to die homeless on Toronto's cold streets.

Out the windows of my cosy apartment, the first snows of winter fall on famously tepid Victoria. Early in the year to be sure, for a city these last years that rarely sees snow at all. It reminds; we are Canadians afterall, living in a cold country whose climate is not always friendly to human survival. It's a fact easy to forget living here on the mild Pacific coast, and living easy, with a job and the bills paid.

But my happy situation is one not shared by all living here. Unemployment, under employment, and low pay is common here, as everywhere in Canada today;  common here as elsewhere too is high rent, and a lack of affordable rental housing. Combined with the abrogation of their duty to the welfare of the people by all levels of government, the current economic environment is the "perfect storm" for the poor.  

Years ago, during the "good times" in the Eighties, I lived in Toronto, where winter is winter, and the working ethos is roughly summed up as: Sink or Swim! Living downtown, the homeless were a common sight; I would see them, bundles of rags, curled up fetal-like over the ventilation grates of the highrise office towers. The tower's, deserted and ablaze with light, heaters mind the comfort of the machines inside, while its excess warmth helps keep some anonymous indigent alive another night.
But not everyone has a grate. The last year I lived in Toronto, 1991, the economy was taking a decided turn south. A joker named George Bush was in the White House, monkey-wrenching Ronald Reagan's "good time" economy, and the effects were being felt, even in the 'Big Smoke.' More people were landing on the streets hard, and dying there too. The press didn't write much about it then, but someone in the city decided the growing number of fatal exposure victims should not remain unknown. Throughout the downtown area, little black crosses started appearing. There were no names attached, simply paper and paint crosses, marking the places where another homeless Canadian had died for lack of shelter.

And, it seems not so much has changed since my days there. Writing in the Toronto Star newspaper, November 14th of this year, Colin Johnson and John Brewin beg we Canadians imagine:

"Imagine an entire busload of people dying in a horrible crash, because of faulty brakes. Cries of outrage, coupled with demands for improved safety inspections, would immediately dominate our newscasts, newspapers, government legislatures and water-cooler conversations. Now try to imagine, if you can, 12 busloads of people perishing. Imagine the uproar that would provoke, especially if the victims were innocent schoolchildren. We would all be appalled at such a terrible loss of human life. We all hold up the value of every human life and deplore needless deaths ... or do we?"

Of course, they're not talking about cuddly middle-class kids perishing in school bus crashes, but the dirty and low thought of poor; inner city ghosts and bogeymen, whose lives we don't want to hear about, and whose fate is too terrible for us to contemplate. These are the "un-people," destined to be forgotten in life, as they will be too forgotten once their misery here is done.

But, there is a place where these fallen are remembered, as Johnson and Brewin record:

"Nestled behind the Eaton Centre, in front of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, is a stark, shocking memorial. It lists the names of those who have perished on the streets of Toronto for lack of housing. Many are only known as "Jane Doe" or "John Doe." Each month, new names are added to this list at a simple ceremony of remembrance. The 500th name will be added to this death toll today."

Looking out the window at the snow, I can't say how many have died for lack of shelter on Victoria's streets, but I wonder if it's not past time we venture into the streets to demand better for our society; better that we go into the halls of power in this country with petitions and placards, before going out into the elements with black paint and paper crosses. Or, do we need to see 500 more corpses, needlessly killed by inaction?

The Star's, Colin Johnson and John Brewin sum up the political situation in this country, and it is an outrage:

"Witness, as recently reported, our provincial government putting $392 million for badly needed affordable housing projects into a contingency fund, instead of into new housing construction, because of a funding dispute with the federal government.

Witness the federal government refusing to renew an excellent program which funds housing programs in Toronto and across Canada called the Supporting Community Partnerships Initiative, even as it struggles with how to dispose of billions of dollars of surplus revenues.

Witness the thousands of people in our city and region who endure terribly degrading conditions, again because of a lack of funding to repair their rundown apartments."

Looking at the snow fall from the warm side of a window is pleasant, but we can't afford to forget what living in a cold country means to those without the warmth of hearth and home.

Chris Cook is a contributing editor to PEJ News and the Atlantic Free Press. He also hosts Gorilla Radio, a weekly public affairs program, broad/webcast from the University of Victoria, Canada. You can check out the GR Blog here.

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