February Column

Most of us are fortunate enough to have a roof over our heads, employment, and friends and family we can lean upon. It is easy to forget that not all of us are as fortunate.

I work in the health care field and regularly meet people who remind me that little in life, if anything, is constant. A person's life circumstances can change in the blink of an eye. Any one of us can be consumed by depression. And that can change not only your life, but also the lives of your family and friends. In our volatile economic times, people lose their jobs overnight. While shopping or going to work, you could get into an accident and never make it home again. We are surrounded by risks and, as a result, one can reach rock bottom very quickly with no exit in sight. We're okay until we're not.

In a span of one week, three people in Toronto died from weather-related deaths. In a city as amazing as ours, and in a country as great as Canada, more and more people are falling through the cracks.

Regardless of our personal opinions about homeless issues in our city, none of us can deny that we are affected. The problems certainly will not be resolved by ignoring them or telling those who are under-housed to get a job. If we were to take just a brief moment and give this some thought, with a little compassion, we may come to the realization that we can and we should do more as a society.

Economically speaking, it is in our best interest to provide housing to the homeless population -- not only low income housing, but supportive housing as well. Building more supportive housing ensures that individuals in this vulnerable population are able to deal with the day-to-day challenges they face without having to struggle to find shelter. Having a roof over their heads allows them not only to get a decent sleep, but also proper nutrition. Three meals a day certainly helps with administering any needed medication. Once basic necessities are met, one is able to take the first step towards finding employment.

Homelessness has many hidden costs. Multiple daily visits to the emergency room, for example, can cost several thousands of dollars per day. Frequent hospital admissions are even more expensive than emergency room visits. Crimes in our neighbourhoods sometimes arise from the desperation that destitute individuals experience. The cost of court and prison time must also be considered. It costs approximately $100,000 per year to house a prisoner. When we consider these costs, it is a no-brainer to have appropriate housing for these individuals.

Over the years, Toronto and other GTA municipalities have undertaken numerous studies on homelessness. I imagine these studies are all collecting dust somewhere. The last thing our city needs is another study or another panel of experts to examine homelessness. We know what the problem is. We know what needs to be done. It is now time for us to coordinate with other GTA cities, the province and community partners to build the housing we need.

At the end of the day, what we need to make housing happen is political will and money. If we, as a caring community, want this to happen then we must let our political representatives know and force their hands. How many more lives must be lost before something meaningful is done?

As a citizen and contributing member of our community, I am outraged. And you should be, too. We endure this horror every year during the winter and summer months. Let us commit ourselves to putting an end to poverty and homelessness in our city.

Currently, our shelters are bursting at the seams. When speaking to those who choose to sleep outside, they tell me that they are sometimes robbed of the few possessions they have while staying in shelters. Others tell of being assaulted inside shelters. To understand the conditions of some of these facilities, I encourage members of the community to take a tour through a homeless shelter to get a sense of what it is all about. It will break your heart.

Warming and cooling centres are a band-aid, not a solution. Supportive and low income housing are what we need -- for the good of all.