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FORUM: Toronto has a homelessness crisis (Jan. 2023)

January 24th, 2023 · No Comments

Governments must come together to address it

By Jessica Bell

On Dec. 8, I stood with Reverend Maggie Helwig, Bishop Andrew Asbil of the Archdiocese of Toronto, and over 100 local residents to observe the installation of a cage around the Panhandler Jesus statue outside the Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields on College St.

This was a symbolic act designed to draw attention to a crisis just metres away—the city is threatening to evict the encampment outside St. Stephen’s. The cage was placed on the Jesus statue to draw attention to the city’s criminalization of homeless people.

Homelessness is a complex social issue that demands a coordinated response from all levels of government, agencies, institutions, and civil society. It requires a range of measures, from increasing social assistance rates to providing comprehensive mental health care to people who can’t cope. What we also know is, we’re not going to solve homelessness without finding permanent homes for people in need.

In Toronto in 2022 there’s far too few dignified, safe and affordable homes available. Shelters are at capacity most nights. There’s no permanent supportive housing available—this is housing that comes with mental health care, meals, and other services to help people who are struggling. Many of the hotels that were used by the city for temporary housing during the pandemic are ending their leases. The wait list for community housing—where people pay a maximum of one third of their income toward their rent—is over a decade long. With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto at a record high of $2279, the private housing market is frankly hostile to low and moderate-income people.

In 2021, the auditor general said the Ford government “has no plan to reduce or prevent homelessness.”  Since then, the government has cut more municipal funding to shelters, banned municipalities from collecting developer fees earmarked for affordable housing, and made it easier to evict tenants. The provincial government is making homelessness worse.

The vast majority of residents understand that ignoring, harassing, fining, confiscating belongings, and jailing unhoused people only makes life harder for people living hard lives. I understand this too.   

Everyone should be able to live in a home they can afford and that meets their needs. That’s why we are calling on the government to release a plan to reduce and prevent homelessness this winter and end homelessness by 2025.

This plan should include buying, building, and financing the construction of affordable and supportive housing on public and private land, quickly assembling homes on parking lots, and expanding the scope of the Housing Now program which builds mixed-income housing near TTC stations. Funding for community housing needs to be increased, along with funding for shelters to provide emergency housing and mental health care. To help people find a home they can afford, social assistance rates need to be doubled, and strong rent controls must be implemented across Ontario in order to stabilize rent.  

I want to recognize the hard work of residents in our area who are using their power to help people in need. Maggie Helwig and the team at St. Stephen’s are showing up for encampment residents. The staff and volunteers at the Scott Mission run a shelter while raising capital and operating funds to build 109 permanently affordable homes on their site. The Kensington Land Trust works with the city to buy up buildings to convert them into non-market community housing. 

There are so many more people I could name. They deserve our support. They are an inspiration of what dedicated, kind, and empowered people can accomplish every day.

We are in a crisis, and all of us, especially governments, need to act accordingly. I take heart in knowing many of us already are.

Jessica Bell is the MPP for University-Rosedale and the Official Opposition’s Housing Critic. She can be reached at jbell@ndp.on.ca or 416-535-7206. 

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Tags: Annex · Opinion

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