On Nov. 18, in anticipation of National Housing Day, Bishop Andrew Asbil spoke to members of the media and others outside Holy Trinity, Trinity Square to address the situation facing homeless and precariously housed people in the diocese.
Seated in front of the Toronto Homeless Memorial, surrounded by an encampment of tents and makeshift shelters, Bishop Asbil acknowledged that Anglicans around the diocese are daily ministering to unhoused people and those in need of housing, while highlighting the diocese’s new advocacy campaign, Housing Matters.
He noted that Nov. 22 is National Housing Day in Canada, marking the day in 1998 when the Big City Mayors Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities recognized homelessness as a national emergency. “Twenty-two years later, homelessness is a state of emergency, doubly so in the reality of COVID-19,” he said. “When we hear from government leaders that we need to stay home and self-isolate, most of us can do that from the comfort of our housing, but there are many among us for whom that is not the case.”
Congregate settings such as shelters magnify the risk of transmission, leading many to seek shelter and privacy in encampments such as the one outside Holy Trinity. Additionally, since the beginning of the pandemic, loss of regular income and recent changes to the Landlord and Tenant Act have put many people who had housing at increased risk of losing their homes, especially since an earlier moratorium on residential evictions expired in early August.
“It’s always a surprise to Canadians that the cold comes every winter,” said Bishop Asbil. “But successive governments have failed to address the need, leaving more and more people in need every winter. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the cracks in our social safety net to an extent impossible to ignore.”
Through the diocese’s Housing Matters advocacy campaign, each Anglican in the diocese is asked to advocate to provincial and municipal governments on three issues:
- Urge the provincial government to re-instate a moratorium on residential evictions for the duration of the pandemic.
- Urge municipal governments to institute a moratorium on clearing encampments, and instead provide equipment, supplies, and information (including tents, sleeping bags, access to washrooms, and fire safety measures) for the survival, health, and safety of encampment residents.
- Urge municipal governments across the diocese to provide a range of flexible and rapid housing options – such as hotel rooms, modular or “tiny house” units or vacant apartment units – that do not require people to move into congregate settings, and to work with unhoused people and service providers to provide adequate support for those who are rehoused.
Bishop Asbil noted that National Housing Day falls on the same Sunday that the diocese highlights its campaign in support of its Faith- Works ministry partners. This year, it was also the feast day of the Reign of Christ, the readings for which called Anglicans “to envision the world as God intended it to be, where all live in peace and justice and harmony.”
Encampment resident Candace Mitchell spoke movingly of her friend Adam, who had died just the previous night. Though he was undergoing cancer treatment and in a wheelchair, Adam was unable to find housing. “We need help,” she said. “We need to get off the streets. We need any support we can get. Give us a chance to look toward the future.”
The Rev. Leigh Kern, the diocese’s Coordinator of Indigenous Ministries and Reconciliation Animator who works with Toronto Urban Native Ministry in Trinity Square, said deaths like Adam’s were preventable. “People who have already been most impacted by the violence of our society have been pushed to the fringe and treated as if we, as a society, do not care if they live or they die. As a community, we need to prioritize one another.”
She spoke of how disparate groups – from Muslims to Korean Catholics to Trans Pride Toronto – have come together to support the work done by Holy Trinity and Toronto Urban Native Ministry, which never shut down, even in the early days of the pandemic. “Through that, we have all become stronger. People living in the encampment have provided crisis intervention, mental health support, overdose prevention and other supports for each other. They have shown us the path forward. But we need your help. We need support from the community, and hygiene facilities and access to housing options from the city.”
Asked by one of the reporters why he thinks the housing crisis has persisted for so long, Bishop Asbil responded, “We have to ask ourselves why we have allowed ourselves to walk by and not notice, why we have failed to recognize the humanity in our neighbours.” All of us have a responsibility to make the need for housing a priority for our elected leaders.
Following the press conference, Bishop Asbil was invited to meet with local City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and officials from the Mayor’s office around support for people in encampments and advocating for more affordable housing at the provincial level.
A Housing Matters campaign backgrounder and template letters to provincial and municipal officials can be found on the diocese’s website at www.toronto.anglican.ca/sjac under the heading “Housing Matters.”