Toronto residents, MPP urge province to declare state of emergency on homelessness

Toronto residents and an MPP called on the Ontario government on Monday to declare a state of emergency on homelessness in the city and across the province before the start of winter.

People could freeze to death if action not taken soon, residents and MPP say

Domenico Saxida, who has experienced homelessness for three years, shows a reporter his home in Alexandra Park. (CBC)

Toronto residents and an MPP called on the Ontario government on Monday to declare a state of emergency on homelessness in the city and across the province before the start of winter.

The residents, leaders of community groups, neighbourhood associations and business organizations, and two people experiencing homelessness said such a declaration is needed immediately because hundreds of people are living in encampments across Toronto.

Speaking at a news conference in Alexandra Park, near Dundas Street West and Bathurst Street, the residents said people could freeze to death if action is not taken soon.
NDP MPP Chris Glover, who represents Spadina-Fort York, urged the province to reverse cuts to programs that help unhoused people and to provide more financial support to the city for its plans to build 3,000 affordable housing units in the next two years and 350,000 units over the next 10 years.

Glover said there are more than 60 tents with about 100 people in Alexandra Park alone.

"The solution to this housing crisis that we are experiencing here lies with the government," Glover said.

All three levels of government, federal, provincial and municipal, must "step up" to solve the problem, he said. The provincial government, however, is "most guilty" of contributing to the current crisis, he added. 

"The community members, the business members, the agencies that help people who are experiencing homelessness, they cannot do it on their own," he said.

Glover said a declaration that homelessness is a state of emergency in Toronto and Ontario would enable the province to free funds that could help to deal with the problem. The province can make the declaration under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, he said.

"We cannot leave people in tents through the winter. We need to take care of people. We don't want people freezing to death," Glover said.

Katelyn Margerm, a volunteer of the Encampment Support Network, a network of neighbours, says the group has been providing food, water, first aid, tents, and sleeping bags in Alexandra Park for 16 weeks. (CBC)

Katelyn Margerm, a volunteer of the Encampment Support Network, a network of neighbours, said the group has been providing food, water, first aid, tents and sleeping bags in Alexandra Park for 16 weeks.

"We watched the province turn their backs entirely on a homelessness crisis they helped to create. Instead of investing in safe housing during a deadly pandemic, they continued to starve the city of Toronto of resources, who in turn have actively made conditions in the park worse by withholding services, like running water and amenities," Margerm said.

"Residents are chronically targeted by police who have been using bylaw infractions to justify their campaign of surveillance, of harassment, of ticketing, of searches and seizures of private property, of arrests and police violence," she added.

"As of today, there is no winter plan."

Margerm said the situation is the result of a decades-long housing crisis made worse by the pandemic and an opioid crisis. The Ontario government has taken the situation "from shameful to entirely obscene" through a major cut to the budget of the municipal housing ministry last year, she said.

The city, for its part, would only help less than a third of unhoused or precariously housed people through its two-year plan on homelessness announced last month, if the plan was fully funded, she added.

WATCH| A Toronto resident calls for a declaration of emergency on homelessness:

Toronto resident calls for declaration of emergency on homelessness

CBC News Toronto

10 months ago
Jelena Tomic, a Toronto resident, makes a plea to the province to declare homelessness an emergency. How much worse does the situation have to get before the province acts, she asked. Tomic sits on the board of The Gardens at Queen. 3:31

Jelena Tomic, a resident who has lived in the area for 13 years, said neighbourhoods around encampments have begun to decay. Tomic sits on the board of The Gardens on Queen. She said many residents are fed up and moving.

"My community wants security and safety for everyone, including the homeless," Tomic said.

A fire in the Alexandra Park encampment on Sept. 20 nearly spread to her townhouse complex.

Tomic asked: "Will it take my townhouse complex to burn down before any action is taken? Or will that not be enough?"

Curtis Priest, chair of the public safety and security committee for Garment District Neighbourhood Association, said encampments have taken over parks and are spilling onto city streets. 

'People are dying out here'

"The government has clearly failed us over a significant period of time over a wide of metrics," Priest said.

Priest said the province needs to create a network of affordable housing, addiction and mental health supports across Ontario.

The homelessness crisis is hurting local businesses, according to Robert Sysak, executive director of the West Queen West BIA, which represents 400 members from Bathurst Street to Gladstone Avenue.

"West Queen West businesses want to work together to find a solution for this problem," Sysak said.

Domenico Saxida, an encampment resident, told reporters that Toronto police entered the encampment in Alexandra Park early Monday, accused residents of having drugs and weapons, and slashed seven tents, leaving clothing wet.

"This is ridiculous. This is Canada. This is not right," Saxida said.

"People are dying out here," he said. "All I'm saying is the government has got to do something."

Province says it made affordable housing a priority

The Ontario ministry of municipal affairs and housing said in a statement on Monday it has invested in measures to prevent homelessness and to build affordable housing.

"Our government has prioritized affordable housing and homelessness prevention — and any suggestion otherwise is completely false and misleading," said Adam Wilson, spokesperson for Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing.   

"In fact, this year the City of Toronto is receiving more money for homelessness prevention and affordable housing than they did in 2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19 or 2019-20."

Wilson said Ontario was the first province to sign onto the national housing strategy through the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit, which will invest $1.4 billion to provide portable housing benefits to vulnerable people.

The Ontario government has created a $510 million social services relief fund in response to the pandemic. Through this program, the city has received $39 million and is eligible for an additional $118 million, money which is to be used for housing solutions, he said.

The minister also recently issued two ministerial zoning orders to speed the construction of two new modular supportive housing projects in Toronto, he added.