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No one should die on the street: How we can help Toronto's homeless

With the recent deaths of two people on the streets of Toronto, Metro reached out to concerned parties for their take on what can and should be done.

Toronto needs to do better

It should go without saying that when the weather is cold the city should expand its offerings of shelter and drop-in services. Toronto’s politicians and bureaucrats seem surprised every winter that it’s cold. We have a moral obligation to protect our most vulnerable residents. Yet the 24-hour drop-in centre for women, promised for December, is not open. The warming centre for youth — part of this winter’s cold-weather response — will only begin later this month. Winter is in full force; why are these services not ready?

Shelters are full and under-resourced. The many good staff members struggle to deliver the services they know their clients need. City policy, dating back to the early 2000s, states that when shelters reach 90 per cent capacity, more shelter space will open. This threshold has been exceeded for almost 15 years, and yet capacity has not kept pace with demand. We need more beds now.

The 28-year-old Out of the Cold program, originally intended as a Band-Aid fix, is now institutionalized as part of Toronto’s winter response. In the past, the city has opened warming centres in civic centres and winter shelters in armouries and closed hospitals. These are low-barrier, supportive services for those most resistant to accessing shelters. They get people inside and can prevent deaths like the ones last week in Toronto. They are desperately needed, and Toronto is falling short. Yet, it’s a problem that will never be resolved until the city moves its focus to prevention and solutions, such as housing with necessary supports.

The State of Homelessness in Canada report cards show that homelessness is an increasing problem, with 35,000 people a night suffering across the country. The report cards also found that homelessness and related emergency services cost Canadian taxpayers more than $7 billion a year, while solving the issue through rent supplements, tax credits, new affordable housing (with supports) and increased income supports would cost around $4 billion. That works out to just $106 per taxpayer each year. And the issue would be significantly resolved in 10 years with serious commitments from all levels of government.

We can end homelessness, if we want to. Isn’t it time we directed our energy to solutions?

Tanya Gulliver-Garcia is a research co-ordinator with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

Business must play a role in helping homeless

Why does it take the loss of a life to shock us out of complacency?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself since the tragic death of a homeless man at the corner of Yonge and Dundas last week. He’s a man I didn’t know, but a face I may have seen among the millions of faces I see every year on Canada’s busiest street. Homelessness is complex but it can be tackled through root causes and sustainable solutions. It requires partnership: like-minded organizations working together. Business is key to that partnership. Business owners on Yonge Street are key to that partnership.

We are not outreach workers but we can be eyes and ears on the street. We can learn to identify those in distress and either escalate or connect them to appropriate interventions.

The Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area (DYBIA) already includes a social give-back  to charities and organizations that work with street-involved communities. Our signature Winter Magic event series, for instance, supports Raising the Roof, an agency that tackles homelessness. We likewise work closely with the social agencies based in our district — including Covenant House, Yonge Street Mission and various churches — to actively improve the health of our entire community.

What we as businesses need to do better is to be aware. We need to be sensitized to the needs of people living on the street — and be better informed of how to help. Imagine if we were equipped with a booklet or app that told us which first responders to call. Other cities do it already: try googling “Little Black Book” at kitchener.ca. DYBIA will make it a priority this month to offer training to staff, members and other stakeholders to move forward with our belief that we have a greater role to play. Homelessness is not the sole responsibility of the police nor the City’s Streets to Homes program nor social agencies. It’s a community issue.

It’s easy to let incidents like the recent death overwhelm us; it’s easy not to take action. Collaboration and ownership make a world-class city — because safe, inclusive and compassionate cities are also attractive to business, tourists, residents and investors.

Be part of the solution. Wake up tomorrow and do something for someone else.

Mark Garner is the executive director and chief staffing officer for the Downtown Yonge BIA.

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