James Mangaliman

Tragedy comes to Toronto’s streets

By  James Mangaliman, Youth Speak News
  • January 16, 2015

When temperatures dropped to -12 degrees Celsius in early January, a homeless man dressed only in a t-shirt and jeans was stuck on the cold streets of downtown Toronto. Vulnerable to the freezing temperature and bitter winds, he sought protection in a bus shelter.

But prolonged exposure to the cold will stab at a person’s exposed skin until it numbs the body. Vital bodily functions shut down, unconsciousness and death then descend, a fate that this man along with another found sleeping inside of a truck met earlier this month.

Death by hypothermia is a threat to thousands of homeless people who sleep outdoors in the winter. Any death in such circumstances is one too many and, unfortunately, it is only after such a tragedy that questions are raised about the effectiveness of homeless services.

Could such a tragedy have been avoided?

Currently there are more than 5,000 homeless people outdoors and in shelters and facilities like hospitals and detention centres in Toronto, a number that has increased over the past seven years, according to the city’s 2013 Street Needs Assessment report. As emergency relief methods, Toronto offers a variety of outreach and hostel services that work to protect and assist the homeless. When extreme cold weather alerts are issued (temperatures of -15 degrees or colder), the city opens two warming centres.

However, when temperatures did not cross this threshold on the evening the two men died, a weather alert was never issued. The rigidity of such a policy came under fire after the recent deaths, moving Mayor John Tory to open warming centres ahead of a weather alert. But according to National Weather Service statistics, it could take as short as half an hour of exposure to the cold in such conditions for a person to experience frostbite, let alone having to spend hours outside of a shelter. Staying in a homeless shelter may be another short-term solution to the issue of homelessness, however these emergency hostels are criticized for their overcrowded conditions. The inadequacy of such services points to longer-term demographic trends that spell an ever-growing issue of homelessness in Toronto.

A recent Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) report by the City of Toronto published in December 2013 outlines the socioeconomic issues that contribute to the growing numbers of homeless people. The report identifies a decline in long-term job opportunities and a lack of affordable housing as being among the issues that worsen the issue of homelessness. In addition, as often is the case, the city must deal with a limited budget to be divided between funding for affordable housing and homeless services.

Limited resources and a decline in opportunities to maintain affordable housing are constraining Toronto’s framework for the homeless. Until such social issues are addressed, it is important to remember that even regular citizens can play a part in assisting the needy, whether through generous support or by simply calling city services over concern for vulnerable individuals. Any help is better than no help. No help at all and a disregard for the less fortunate will forever perpetuate tragedy.

(Mangaliman, 18, is a first-year Humanities student at the University of Toronto.)

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