The new official numbers of homeless deaths from the City of Toronto released in late May were sad confirmation for those who have been gathering every month for almost two decades at Holy Trinity’s Homeless Memorial.
Toronto Public Health has reported that 27 people who were homeless died from January to March of 2017 – that’s a rate of more than two per week. If this pace continues, then more than 100 homeless deaths will be recorded this year – a record for Toronto.
People have been gathering around a plain gray memorial at the south side of Holy Trinity on the second Tuesday of every month at 12 noon. They remember, by name, the women, men and children who died from homelessness over the previous month.
The simple ceremony, which often includes reflections by those who knew the people who died, offers a small measure of dignity to people who were forced onto the social and economic margins of Toronto. In some cases, a name is made public as an unclaimed body lies in the city morgue, so John Doe or Jane Doe is added to the list.
The brief monthly event includes a time for those who are present to re-commit themselves to the struggle for safe and affordable housing. People gather not simply to mourn, but to work actively to end homelessness in Toronto and Canada.
One simple demand from the very beginning of the monthly memorial has been that the City of Toronto maintain a public register of homeless deaths. Advocates believe that once the true scale of the homelessness disaster is understood, then more Torontonians will demand action to end the terrible toll.
Holy Trinity and its partners in the Homeless Memorial call around to homeless shelters and service providers to conduct a survey of recent deaths. This process has allowed us to identify close to 1,000 people who have died on Toronto’s unforgiving streets. But advocates know that our method likely under-counts the real scale of the death count.
Last year, the City of Toronto finally agreed to conduct a more thorough count as the Homeless Memorial continued its calls for action, and we were joined by The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper.
When the first set of numbers finally came out in May, they confirmed the horrific reality of homeless deaths in Toronto, which is the richest city in Canada and one of the richest cities in the world. Sadly, the official numbers also confirmed what the Homeless Memorial participants have been saying for years – the real death count is much higher than the numbers that we have been able to confirm through our informal method. In fact, the first official city count reported more than double the number of deaths as were tallied on the Homeless Memorial.
The staggering new homeless death count numbers were released after the City of Toronto passed a multi-billion annual budget that includes cuts to housing and homeless services, as well as virtually no new investment in new healthy and affordable homes.
The provincial and federal governments have been making a growing series of promises about new housing investments, but the substantial dollars and new programs that are required have yet to be delivered.
So, we will gather once again on June 13 at noon at the Homeless Memorial for our monthly gathering. We will remember those who died in this month, and we will raise our voices – and plan actions – to ensure housing for all.
Michael Shapcott is Deacon at the Church of the Holy Trinity – Trinity Square, a founding member of the Toronto Homeless Memorial, and a founding director of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
More on the Homeless Memorial: http://www.holytrinitytoronto.org/wp/justice-work/homeless-memorial/
For further reading: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/05/25/27-homeless-deaths-in-toronto-in-just-three-months.html
Toronto Budget 2017: http://www.socialplanningtoronto.org/2017_city_budget_passes_service_cuts_for_vulnerable_communities_lack_of_action_on_poverty_reduction
The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016: