Homelessness in Toronto has been called a disaster. Now it has progressed to the point of tragic calamity. The Saturday Toronto Star (Jan 10 2009) reports that John Massie, 46, (known to us here by his street name – Classy), a homeless man who lived on the streets in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, has died of burns he suffered in a terrible misadventure. It’s almost impossible to retain perspective when reading an article like this. Like many homeless in the dwontown Toronto core, Massie had been seeking a few minutes warm respite from the cold inside a bank ATM lobby at King and Yonge. Like many, he had been drinking, obviously high proof alcohol of some sort – police say he had spilled alcohol on himself, lit a smoke outside the bank and went up in flames. He died hours later in hospital from the burns.
Bench or Bed?
Many volunteers with Project417 have walked the streets of the financial district with me handing out meals and warm clothing, especially the Richmond – King – Yonge – University block frequented by so many homeless. Years ago, Massie probably would have been camped out at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall, where upwards of a hundred used to camp on benches and in cardboard huts – but council and the new Mayor David Miller forced most of them off saying the presence of so many homeless was bad for tourism. Those of you who walk with me see where most have gone: two blocks down into the financial district, shivering and living out a hopeless existence up against the glass and steel towers of banks and wealthy corporations.
What will it take to make this city, this country, wake up and see the travesty that is homelessness? The Star reports Massie was banned from most shelters, and even several public parks due to what they called bothersome, anti-social behaviour. Banned then, even from emergency shelter – banned from Out of the Cold programs – banished to walk the streets and sleep on cement, taking refuge in alcohol, even cheap mouthwash – abandoned by the very agencies and programs that exist to help him. Security guards and shelter workers, many with Dixon Hall, the agency hired by the city to police grassroots Out of the Cold programs in churches, regularly ban our homeless friends from shelters due to aggressive, violent behavior. Some church Out of the Cold programs have opted out of having Dixon Hall staff on site, instead footing the bill themselves for private safety and security staff so they can have more control over decisions such as banning or turning away the homeless. It’s a difficult line to walk – knowing that it may be a life or death decision, as it was for John Massie.
The report refers to “city restrictions that prevent outreach agencies [from] distributing survival supplies…like sleeping bags, hot food and blankets” as a possible contributing factor to the tragic death of John Massie. These City of Toronto restrictions do exist and they are almost criminal. There is no bylaw cited by the city in imposing the restriction. Several years ago, all outreach agencies that rely on City of Toronto funding to run their programs received correspondence from the city requiring them to cease handing out food, warm clothing, and outdoor gear or face review of their funding – financial coercion, almost hostage taking in effect. I know most of them complied – you used to be able to call the city’s StreetHelp line and have a sleeping bag or blanket delivered to a homeless person without shelter on the street – no more, but they will offer to transport the person to a shelter at some point in the next few hours – the same shelters that ban them and turn them away. ( A police “drunk tank” would be better than Massie’s fate outside). I know of more than one organization that no longer delivers hot meals on the street because of pressure from city staff. There is no bylaw being enforced by the city in this – although several right-wing councillors had suggested anyone handing out food to the homeless needed a food vendors licence like the hotdog carts – ludicrous! They base their cruel coercion on the ivory tower philosophy that servicing homeless on the streets only “enables” their street lifestyle and inhibits them from receiving the help they need – help the City of Toronto has bet will come only from their now long-running “Streets to Homes” programs – whose street outreach workers travel with security guards by their side.
Project417’s street outreach receives no city or government funding. An independent Christian charity, we will continue to share the elements of our liturgy – in the form of nutritious sandwich bag lunches prepared in churches across the GTA by thousands of volunteers every year. We will continue to walk the streets and be in community with our abandoned homeless friends like John Massie. And we will continue to grieve for each and every homeless man and woman that dies a needless death cold, hungry and alone. Rest in peace John…
To find out how you can walk with me in solidarity to the memory of John Massie, visit project417.com::
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