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Death on the Streets of Canada


I Introduction
II Death on the streets of Canada. Déjà vu.
III Conclusion and calls to action
IV Resources

A version of this feature originally appeared in a blog written by Cathy Crowe on ( The conclusion and resources have been provided by Tanya Gulliver-Garcia.

I Introduction

We literally saw death on the streets of Canada recently in Toronto. In a 48-hour period two homeless men died. On Monday, January 5, a man in his fifties, whose identity has not yet been released, was found in the west end of the city in an abandoned van. On Tuesday January 6, a man now identified as Shabbir Jaffa was found in a bus shelter at the busy intersection of Yonge and Dundas.

Both deaths occurred in an extremely bitter Arctic cold spell. Temperatures ranged from -10 to -14 C but were closer to -20 C with wind chill. The social and political context was also chilling. The Medical Officer of Health had not yet issued an Extreme Cold Weather Alert and the appropriate city officials did not direct the opening of the 24-hour warming centres. Meanwhile, the city's shelter system was operating beyond the City Council approved 90 per cent capacity. The volunteer-run Out of the Cold program, which the city relies on to provide over 800 spaces per week, was packed as usual. To add insult to injury, years of funding cuts to agencies that provide shelter, food and health care to homeless people left organizations stretched and diminished in their ability to respond to emergency conditions.

II Death on the streets of Canada. Déjà vu.

In 1996 three homeless men froze to death on the streets of Toronto and people in the city and across the country reacted with horror and shock. They mobilized, rallied, marched, fought for more services and in Toronto we formed a coalition that insisted on a coroner’s inquest. At the conclusion of what became known as the Freezing Deaths Inquest, I admit that I naively believed that the various levels of government would take note and respond to the inquest recommendations. Although the presiding coroner, a medical doctor, would not allow the word housing to be used by witnesses, or allow evidence on affordable and supportive housing to be presented, the very able five-person jury still made important recommendations on housing (the upstream solution) but also many service related recommendations that would save lives in the short term (the downstream solution). Toronto's now infamous cold-alert system evolved from this process.

In early January I witnessed rigidity and callousness in the (non) actions of city managers and public health officials who refused to call a cold alert and open warming centres. But, it's not the first time.

I'll never forget the Sunday morning one year after the first cluster of freezing deaths. A reporter called me to say the body of a man had been found in an aboveground parking garage on Adelaide St. West and did I have a comment? Jack Layton, then a Toronto city councillor, and I went to the site where Garland Sheppard, known as "Newf" on the street, had succumbed to the cold in his makeshift bed of sleeping bags and blankets. This was the day I woke up to the cold reality of politics and health in this city. You see on that night, the City of Toronto had also not called a cold weather alert or opened a warming centre and it had been –17 C with a wind chill of -30.

For decades I've worked alongside frontline workers such as Gaetan Heroux and Beric German and we have watched and tried to stop the plague of death that targets people who are homeless. My large collection of death files and our campaigns to prevent death are now in the City of Toronto Archives.

They are records that tell a very shameful story. In 1998, the bodies of two homeless men were found at Queen and Sherbourne Streets. I told Toronto Star journalist Cathy Dunphy: "It's almost like a slaughter. Two in a row this week, it's too much. A society can't assimilate this any longer." Other records tell the story of the tuberculosis outbreak, the violence, and the deaths by exposure or fire.

By 1999, the death rate was so significant that Toronto Disaster Relief Committee had declared homelessness a national disaster. We sent a report titled Death on the Streets of Canada to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that was reviewing Canada's compliance with the International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights. Our report focused on Article 6(1) of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: "Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life." In addition, we pointed out that Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains a similar guarantee: "the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the rights not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." Our evidence covered the range of horrors from the cancellation of federal and provincial housing programs to welfare cuts to systemic discrimination.

The bad news is that deaths have continued to rise across the country. There are now over 700 names on Toronto's Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity, and those are only the names we know of. On Tuesday, January 13 at 12 p.m. three more names were added.

The good news is that similar to the public response to the 1996 freezing deaths, there has been a groundswell of anger and frustration towards the city and politicians' inaction on the shelter emergency. People from all walks of life are mobilizing for a just response. They are using social media, spontaneously creating vigils, lobbying policy makers, planning to give deputations, even partaking in direct action. It was a welcome surprise when Toronto's new mayor John Tory took the unusual step of asking the City Manager to open the warming centres while the Medical Officer of Health continued to refuse to call an alert until the temperature reached -15 C.

I'm heartened to see rabble-rousing about homelessness on the rise! While we fight for the right to housing, this month has been a tragic but important reminder that the right to shelter is also a human right.

III Conclusion and calls to action

There are multiple issues at play here: the freezing deaths themselves and then the conditions that led to them. In one case it’s possible that the man was recently discharged from a hospital. It’s critical that all health institutions have policies that prevent (or at least try to) discharges into homelessness. This means asking questions about housing status and ensuring an individual has the ability and resources to take care of themselves and their health issue.

In Toronto and in many other communities across Ontario (and indeed across Canada) there is a critical housing shortage. Since 1993 when the federal government got out of the business of housing we began developing a crisis. This was exacerbated in 1996 when the Ontario provincial government downloaded housing to the municipalities without funding mechanisms.

We need a national housing strategy supported by all levels of government.

We need investment in income supports to help raise minimum wage and social assistance rates.

In Toronto (and elsewhere) we have a shelter bed crisis. Until enough housing is available there needs to be investment in shelter services including extreme weather responses. This must include low-barrier services and easy access including no abstinence requirements, space for couples and pets. Community agencies need to develop a cold weather plan that keeps people safe. The City of Toronto’s model for Heat Registries can be adapted for cold weather.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse, author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues. She has fostered numerous coalitions and advocacy initiatives that have achieved significant public policy victories. In 1998 she co-founded the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee which issued the 1998 homelessness State of Emergency Declaration that declared homelessness a national disaster and resulted in a new federal program to respond to homelessness. Her work is the subject of a moving documentary titled Street Nurse, directed by Shelley Saywell. Cathy’s website is Follow her on Twitter @cathyacrowe.

Tanya Gulliver-Garcia is the Research Coordinator at Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub. Follow her and the Homeless Hub on Twitter @homelesshub and @tanyamgulliver, and on Facebook:

III Resources

The Homeless Hub:

Capacity issue reports: from Calgary and Saskatoon Toronto

Emma Woolley blog post on cold alerts, specifically in Toronto:

Dr. Stephen Hwang did an interview on cold weather response:

City of Toronto Cold Weather Response plan:

City of Toronto Heat Registry: