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Austerity kills

May 13, 2015

On April 17, the community of Davenport in Toronto lost Jose Eduardo Rivera Gomez from among its poor population. It was a week after his 43rd birthday. After three months in hospital, he died of complications to his liver and pancreas; he was unable to find an organ donor. This is the same community that was focused on earlier this year, when bitter cold took Sergio Escobar (El Tio) in a parked trailer under a railroad overpass.

“It is easy to see that if someone dies while they are homeless how that is a tragedy and completely preventable, but there are a number of our Community Members who have passed away who were in some sort of housing and it seems as if it is easier to overlook their deaths which are just as much attributable to poverty as those we have lost while on the street.” This was the response of The Advocacy Office at The Stop, which is an information and referral resource for Community Members, dealing with all sorts of issues, attempting to find the right information that people need in a way that encourages and empowers people to speak for themselves.

Preventable deaths

Sharon Anderson is a senior advocate and a mentor to advocates in the Stop’s Peer Advocacy Office, which collects the lists of available housing every two weeks and counsels community members with referrals, encouraging clients to then seek housing from among the limited resources available and to advocate for themselves. “A big part of the work involves housing; because social assistance rates are so low that people can't afford to pay for their food and rent, this has some pretty serious effects on people's lives.”

In the words of Pauline Bryant, Community Engagement Worker at the Stop, “With this gentleman and the other folks who passed this winter, the need for better supports for the poor needs to be addressed all year round; not just when there is a need for heating and cooling centres. It needs to be addressed all year round.”

“We don’t get to hear what these community members want to talk about and what they have to say. And it’s important…” began Sharon Anderson before becoming quite emotional about this case. “I want to live in a province that supports and includes everyone because all our lives matter, all our voices deserve to be heard. Every time a Community Member dies we lose that person's hopes and dreams, their knowledge, and their perspective on things. This hurts all of us as a society.”

Community member David Bishop says that, “First and foremost, it’s a big problem to solve and should be handled on a case by case (situation) basis…not lumping all cases together and putting everyone in one category.”

It is clear that poverty is a social problem that deeply affects this community. Eduardo is the fifth death so far this year. Angel Vats, the Civic Engagement Co-ordinator at the Stop, said that, “Eduardo’s passing affects the whole community. Not just in our relationships to him, but also because we can all relate to his situation. So we can relate to the situation; and the fact that any citizen is homeless and can die from the associated impacts of homelessness sends a strong message to many of us about our value within society. Homelessness should flat out not be accepted and we should work together to create the change where everyone is housed.’

Austerity shell games

According to the Realizing Our Potential: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, “A long-term solution requires that we continue to transform how we approach homelessness and move away from short-term solutions in favour of finding and addressing the root of the problem. It means doing more to prevent homelessness in the first place. It means spending money in the right way and on the most effective programs and services. In short, it requires us to invest in the right things now so we are not forced to pay a lot more later.”

Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy for 2014-2019 showed a decline of Federal Investment from $900 to $600 millions between 2011 and 2012, and shifts to exclusive investments in Affordable Housing in 2019-20, when the Homelessness Partnering Strategy and the Social Housing Funding are fully phased out.

These are old numbers, when Ontario was projecting a $400 million investment in the five years to come. There are promised repairs and the building of 10,360 units in the province, but we are already talking about one tenth of the amount committed from 2003-2004, or an 80 per cent decrease in funding!

The City of Toronto, which administers Ontario Works and the street allowance, but is dependent on federal budgets to determine rates, is also responsible for housing initiatives. This is why poverty advocates were shocked when the decision was made last year to invest only in building and not in repairs to existing units.

The shell game between the three levels of government is already quite familiar.  Even in this report, we find that the province “will continue to work in partnership with the federal government” and “continue to urge the federal government to return to the table.”

The Pan/Parapan American Games will provide only 253 units of affordable rental housing and only up to 100 additional affordable ownership units in the Athlete’s Village after the Games.

The role of the City of Toronto is crucial, since financial assistance to the poorest Ontarians is administered by the city, even though it is highly dependent on Federal Funding. The City has embarked on a poverty reduction strategy of its own, consulting with affected organizations and people with lived experience of poverty. This might loosen federal pockets in ways that the Liberal-Conservative divide has not been able to do, but there is also the great fear that where profits are to be made, those least likely to benefit are those who actually need it.

John Clarke of The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has revealed the plan to move more and more homeless out of the city’s core and to close more and more shelters when more need to be built. “We are dealing with an exercise in social cleansing that would be nothing less than tragic. Four homeless men died in this city during January and the Toronto Homeless Memorial continues to chart an appalling toll of homeless people perishing. Removing people to fend for themselves in the outlying parts of the city would increase the risk of such deaths considerably.”

Health for all

According to Rachel Gray, Executive Director of the Stop, “Being poor is really bad for your health and people die sooner…I think it is important that we should value each other enough so that people can live with dignity.”

The Stop believes that “healthy food is a basic human right.” According to their website, “we recognize that the ability to access healthy food is often related to multiple issues and not just a result of low income. At The Stop, we’ve taken a holistic approach to achieve real change in our community’s access to healthy food. We strive to meet basic food needs and, at the same time, foster opportunities for community members to build mutual support networks, connect to resources and find their voices on the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.”

This is an occasion to build community, solidarity with the working class, and among the poor within the working class. OCAP marched with OPSEU on April 23 to defend public services, indicating the kinds of coalition building and solidarity we need moving forward.

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