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Canadian artists, academics, business people call on Toronto to declare state of emergency over homelessness


Hundreds of Canadian artists, academics and business people are calling on Toronto city council to declare a state of emergency over homelessness.

Three open letters were released this week from each respective sector expressing concerns and demanding action.

Since the beginning of the year, four homeless people have died in Toronto and overall shelter capacity remains at 94 per cent, exceeding the city’s safety target of 90 per cent.

“In what is a second-tier system, people are lying exhausted inches away from each other, with inadequate toilets, no privacy, surrounded by the troubled sounds of people in crisis. We witness people who are traumatized by severe poverty, traumatized by no safe space, hurt by terrible stigma and relentless isolation,” said the first letter, whose signatories included author Margaret Atwood, singer Leslie Feist and business woman Jody Steinhauer.

In a statement, a spokesperson for John Tory said the mayor won’t declare a state of emergency because it’s not the best response to long-term systemic and economic problems. Mr. Tory said he has been lobbying federal and provincial governments to help address the homelessness crisis and that they are taking a number of actions to address the issue.

The city will officially decide whether or not to call for a state of emergency over homelessness, as well as next steps, at a city council meeting Wednesday.

Leigh Chapman, a professor at the University of Toronto, said she signed the letter from academics because her brother died while experiencing homeless in 2015. She said she believes Torontonians care about this issue and she would be willing to pay higher taxes if it meant no more unnecessary deaths.

“These people aren’t disposable,” she said. “They deserve every support that we can provide them.”

Emily Paradis, a University of Toronto instructor who helped write the letter from academics, said it went out for signatures Sunday afternoon and by early Monday morning, there were already 70. By Tuesday morning, there were 170.

“The concern about this issue is shared across sectors here in Toronto and across the country,” she said. “There are also … a few international signatories, which to me indicates the global importance of this issue.”

Last week, prior to the release of these letters, activists as well as city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Gord Perks called on the mayor and the city to declare homelessness a state of emergency and for all three levels of government to come up with an action plan together.

The third letter was signed by business people and real estate developers. It states, “There has been 20 years of neglect in not building much-needed affordable rental housing. By declaring a state of emergency for this crisis, we can focus on safer short-term options and bring together the three levels of government to develop an urgent housing plan for individuals and families who are homeless.”

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