Now is the time to push for action against homelessness, say Anglican advocates

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A passerby views the photo exhibit, “This Used To Be My Home,” on and by homeless people, at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Trinity Square), Toronto, Ont. Photo: Tali Folkins

A coroner’s inquest into the death of a Toronto homeless man has released its recommendations—and now is the time for Ontario Anglicans who care about the homeless to start pushing for government action, some of the city’s Anglican advocates for the homeless say.

“I think for Anglicans who are wanting to engage in this issue and sort of ask, ‘What can we do now?…what we need to do is lift up the coroner’s [inquest] recommendations as yet another set of practical guidelines on how we move forward,” says Michael Shapcott, deacon at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Trinity Square), and a director of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Grant Faulkner, a 49-year-old Scarborough, Ont., man, died when his makeshift shack caught fire Jan. 13, 2015—a night when the temperature plunged to -20° C. A funeral was held for him two weeks later at the nearby St. Timothy’s Anglican Church, where Faulkner had often attended a breakfast and lunch program for the homeless and marginally housed, according to the Rev. John Stephenson, priest at St. Timothy’s at the time. (Stephenson is now priest at St. John the Divine Church, also in Scarborough.)

From June 11-15, an inquest into Faulkner’s death was held—the first such inquest into the death of a Toronto homeless person in more than 10 years.

The coroner’s jury released a set of 35 recommendations having to do with services to homeless people in the Greater Toronto Area. The recommendations include calls on the Ontario government to increase the amount of money people are qualified to receive under social assistance “to reflect the real cost of shelter and basic needs,” and to continue partnering with the federal government on its $40 billion National Housing Strategy announced in November 2017. The document also calls on the city of Toronto to, among other things, “increase and standardize access to safe rooming houses” and to change its existing policies to allow the provision of sleeping bags and other survival equipment to people living outside. It also recommends the creation of a permanent memorial to Faulkner in Scarborough, to remind people about the importance of caring for the homeless.

There’s a “depressing familiarity” to the recommendations, Shapcott says, because similar recommendations have come out of inquests into the deaths of other homeless people in the city in recent decades, and yet there are more homeless people than ever.

“We’ve heard this before—we know that these are good recommendations, we know that if they were taken up, they would make a positive difference, but…it feels like the faster and harder we run, the more we just stay in the same place,” he says.

The coroner’s jury has no authority to compel governments to act, so it’s up to concerned citizens to make their views known if they want the recommendations to be implemented, he says.

Because governments need money to implement the recommendations, a great deal depends, Shapcott says, on whether, and to what extent, the recently elected Progressive Conservative government continues Ontario’s participation in the National Housing Strategy.

The previous Liberal government announced April 30 it had signed with the federal government one of a number of planned funding agreements under the strategy. It also said it would match some of the federal funding once it begins to receive it in April 2019. But there’s no guarantee the new government will want to continue taking part in the strategy, and advocates for the homeless in Ontario are “holding their breath” to see how it will respond, Shapcott says.

Homelessness and affordable housing are key priorities for the diocese of Toronto, he says. In January, for example, diocesan Archbishop Colin Johnson issued a pastoral letter to the vestries of the diocese, asking them to consider passing a motion advocating for affordable housing and measures against homelessness.

Shapcott’s own church, Holy Trinity, is known for its memorial to people who have died in Toronto since 1985 as a result of homelessness. The church also holds a monthly memorial service for those who have died on the city’s streets. From June 18-20, Holy Trinity hosted a photo exhibit, “This Used To Be My Home,” featuring photos of the “homes” of some of the city’s homeless and underhoused people—a park bench, an emergency shelter—taken by those people themselves, and accompanied by their own proposals for combatting homelessness. (See Anglican church’s photo exhibit on homelessness praised by former homeless man.)

Michael Mallard, who has spent time in Toronto’s shelter system, points out the names of some people he knew listed on the Church of the Holy Trinity’s Toronto Homeless Memorial. The memorial records people who have died from homelessness in the city. Photo: Tali Folkins

The Rev. Maggie Helwig, rector of the Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields and long-time organizer of a church meal program, also says she likes the jury’s recommendations, especially those dealing with the provision of housing equipment and social assistance rates. She says she hopes they’ll be backed up by pressure from civil society and by people in different levels of government and the media. Housing in Toronto is currently “at a level of extraordinary crisis,” she says.

“We desperately need more affordable housing.”

Toronto’s homeless shelters, are operating at 93% capacity, with 6,630 people using the system in May 2018, according to figures released by the city. But Helwig says it’s obvious there are more homeless people in the city than that. “Every time the city opens a new facility, it fills instantly,” she says. There are also many who choose not to sleep in shelters for safety concerns and other reasons, she says.

On June 26, Toronto Mayor John Tory called on the federal government to help with what he said was an influx of refugee claimants putting “unprecedented pressure” on the city’s shelter system. In a letter to Toronto MPs the previous day, Tory said more than 3,000 refugee claimants and asylum seekers were being housed in the city’s shelters and hotels.

The city also announced in June it had spent $10 million on four large temporary structures, insulated and usable year-round, capable of accommodating 100 people each, in a bid to cope with the increasing demand for shelter space.

But the city really needs not temporary measures like these, but more provincial and federal dollars so it can build permanent housing, Helwig says.

Because he came to know Faulkner from the time he spent at St. Timothy’s, Stephenson was one of the witnesses called to testify at the inquest. He tried to give some insight into Faulkner’s background, situation and personality. He also mentioned that some of those taking part in the church’s meal programs would walk up to three hours to get there.

Stephenson says the recommendations show “deep compassion” for the homeless and marginally housed in the Greater Toronto Area, and recognize that Scarborough is particularly underserved by resources for them. The recommendations, he says, are commendable for proposing measures that would be helpful in the short-, mid and long term. Among the most noteworthy, he says, are calls to increase the number of shelter spaces and outreach services available to people on the streets; to ensure the homeless and marginally housed have access to public transit; to move toward a system of licensed rooming houses in Scarborough; to boost social assistance rates; and to increase the amount of affordable housing.

It remains to be seen, he says, whether the recommendations will result in change.

“On one hand, it’s said, you know, ‘There’s just not enough money,’ ” he says. “Well, there is money—there has to be a political will to spend the money for these needs. So the issue will be—is there political will?”

The Ontario chief coroner is planning to hold an inquest into the death of another Toronto homeless man, Brad Chapman, July 9-13.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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