The downside of up – Chronic homelessness as the devastating flipside of prosperity

Christopher Wahl

On a cold night in December, my husband and our 12-year-old son volunteered with a charitable organization called Ve’ahavta, which provides outreach services to homeless people. Six days a week, Ve’ahavta loads up a van with sleeping bags, toiletries, hot meals and warm socks and distributes them throughout the city in spots where homeless people congregate. In addition to such tangible necessities, the organization offers its clients kindness and compassion.

My son was surprised when the van drove into the Exhibition grounds, a place he associates with summertime roller coasters and cotton candy. The Queen Elizabeth respite centre houses 200 people a night. This is the first winter it has operated as a 24-hour shelter, and it was completely packed. He was also shocked when the van stopped under the Gardiner Expressway to visit the people who live there on old mattresses, in tents, huddled together against the cold. “Now, every time I’m on the Gardiner,” my son told me after his night in the van, “I’m going to remember that it’s someone’s roof.”

Criss-crossing Toronto, he saw firsthand an aspect of the city none of us should ignore. The homeless population is growing. In 2017, according to Toronto Public Health, at least 100 people died while homeless—that’s nearly two people a week. The shelter system is overtaxed, disorganized and insufficient.

In response to the crisis, more than 50 prominent Torontonians—including big names like Margaret Atwood, Rachel McAdams and Sarah Polley—sent an open letter to the mayor demanding more shelter beds. It took a while, but the city got the message. This year, Toronto will have four new shelters with 400 new beds in total. It’s a band-aid solution that’s neither cheap nor ideal, but at least it will provide refuge from the life-threatening cold.

How did we get here? The richer the city, it seems, the bigger the homeless population. The more condos and tech start-ups and fancy restaurants we build, the larger the underclass. Right-wing pundits blame the growth of the homeless population on the recent surge of refugees that, they say, has drained the city of resources and taken up limited beds in its shelter system. Lefties say the problem is a lack of subsidized housing. Everyone can agree that if a one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,000 a month, low-income Torontonians are going to find it damn near impossible to live here.

Homelessness is the devastating flip side of Toronto’s prosperity and desirability. The city attracts people from all over the world, the vast majority of whom find work and flourish. But the increased demand raises the cost of living, which has become prohibitively high to so many. Without smart, long-term solutions and a willingness to share the city’s tremendous wealth, Toronto is in danger of going the way of cities like San Francisco, where just a few steps from the headquarters of the world’s richest tech companies are 15 square blocks of abject poverty.

To better understand how Toronto ended up in this situation, we asked Nicholas Hune-Brown, an exceptionally clear-headed reporter and storyteller, to get to the heart of the crisis. He visited shelters, interviewed city employees tasked with managing the homeless population and met countless people living on the street. “No Fixed Address” is his eye-opening investigation—a portrait of a city at a turning point.

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