“And Jesus said to them, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’” (Matthew 8:20)
In December 2021, Toronto’s Homeless Memorial added 35 names of people who died from causes related to houselessness in the city of Toronto. Every second Tuesday of the month, people gather outside the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto, to name, to remember and to grieve the loved ones we have lost to tragic and preventable circumstances. Years ago, we would often have eight or nine names to add to the memorial monthly, but that number continues to rise, doubling, and now tripling. Every week I hear of the passing of several community members and friends, many of whom I have known for years.
Last winter we witnessed the city of Toronto evicting people living in encampments while there were no indoor shelter-hotel beds available: where were people supposed to go? In response, we organized with impacted families to advocate for an increase of 2,000 beds and private shelter rooms in the city of Toronto’s emergency housing programs, but we have seen no expansion. Within the underfunded and under-resourced shelter system we have heard shocking reports of residents experiencing rape, theft, transphobia, racism and even murder.
Despite our advocacy efforts and raising these horrific findings with city officials, we have seen little movement or efforts to increase the wellbeing, safety and privacy of residents. The overwhelming majority of houseless people are Indigenous, many are Survivors or intergenerational Survivors of child confinement institutions, including Indian Residential Schools and Indian Hospitals. A just response to the crisis of a dramatic rise in deaths in city-run institutions would prioritize the experience and knowledge of residents.
Many of our community members are missing. We have filed missing persons reports but they have led nowhere. We have been told that there are hundreds of unidentified and unclaimed bodies in Toronto’s morgue. Every time I refer a community member into a shelter-hotel I wonder if I will see them again. Every month the shelter system releases anonymous numbers of the amount of people who died in its services recently; we honour them at the Homeless Memorial service as Jane, Jay or John Doe. However, we know that every one of them had a name and little is being done to honour them or connect with the deceased’s family and community.
Last week I learned of the tragic passing of a vibrant soul and wonderful Anishnaabe artist whom I had known for years. He died while riding the subway late at night, he was found unresponsive, and the cause of death is unknown. I recently broke the news of his death to another community member who knew and loved him. He broke down in tears at the thought of his friend dying alone, riding the TTC to stay warm because of severe winter weather and a constantly full shelter system.
As we grieved the constant confrontation of the decimation of our communities he reflected: “I can’t take this, it’s like everyone is dying. Over 300 people have died at the Bond [shelter-hotel] since it opened during the pandemic. A shelter isn’t supposed to have a graveyard. A shelter isn’t supposed to be haunted. My wife died there, and I have no choice but to stay in the same institution that led to her sudden death. When we enter the shelters, they don’t ask for a next of kin. So many people have died that they don’t even tell us when someone passes. How are we supposed to grieve them if we don’t know they died? They aren’t contacting families or reaching out for people to be identified. If I die in the shelter or in a tent, who will tell my daughter?”
Our community members are dying at disproportionate and exponential rates. Those most impacted by these ongoing tragedies have the wisdom that houses solutions to the overlapping oppression against poor and racialized communities. As Christians may we be challenged and transformed by God-with-us, who identified God’s very self with those most impacted by systemic oppression, trauma and social neglect.
“Whoever oppresses a poor person insults their Creator, but they who are generous to the needy honour their Maker.” (Proverbs 14:31)
Sister Laura, a houseless community leader and co-founder with Papa Smith of the street-based community care initiative “Harmonization” comments on the relentless and tragic loss of her friends: “What I see is pure madness, the government treats people who live on the street, who don’t deserve to live on the street, so badly. The housing crisis and covid crisis has turned Toronto into a violent war on the street, the city is at war against us.
“So many of my friends have died on the streets from drug use, so many have died by suicide. This is supposed to be a good place to live. The younger generation is our future to keep our veterans and elderly people safe from harm’s way, from sickness, bad drugs and sh**** housing. Canada has a racist issue. I, Sister Laura, support the grief and loss group in Toronto, Trinity Church supports me, I march forward every day and think every day of everyone around the world who has passed away from homelessness. I pray for the angels to protect everyone on Earth and for our younger generation to keep peace, goodwill and happiness, and have freedom to love and treat people as human beings.”
The constant grief and burden of loss has been extremely heavy on our communities in this time, but in times of unprecedented suffering we are called to deepen our commitment to solidarity, in honour of all whom we have loved and lost. Indeed, above the Homeless Memorial, which crumbles under the weight of over 1,000 names, are the words “FIGHT FOR THE LIVING” written in chalk on the church wall.
The Rev. Leigh Kern is the diocese’s right relations coordinator.