Homeless man, Photo: Public Domain Homeless man, Photo: Public Domain

Austerity, the commodification of housing and chronic social inequality lead to death on the streets of Toronto, reports John Clarke

Bernard Kelly was 74 years old when his life ended in a Toronto bus shelter in the depths of winter. “When he was discovered by police on Jan. 31, he was frozen and dead.” Those who maintain the city’s homeless memorial know of at least three others who have died from exposure to the cold so far this winter but they have not yet been able to discover the names of the other victims.

On the weekend that Kelly died, Environment Canada had put out an extreme cold weather warning. These ‘are issued when very cold temperatures or wind chill creates an elevated risk to health such as frostbite and hypothermia.’ Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor at Sanctuary Toronto, responding to Kelly’s death, commented that “I think all of us need to ask ourselves what kind of city we’ve let ourselves become a part of…that lets people sleep outside in the winter when it’s cold enough to kill.”

It is worth taking this question of what kind of city Toronto has become a little further. The media will usually report literal freezing deaths but they show much less interest in covering a wider ranging process of social murder, to use a term first taken up by Friedrich Engels, that took the lives of more than 100 unhoused people in the city last year. The twin agendas of austerity and an extreme commodification of housing underlie the death of Kelly and others like him. Indeed, it is a simple matter of cause and effect and the human suffering and loss of life that his tragedy is part of are both entirely predictable and fully understood by those in political power.

We can’t know what thoughts passed through the mind of Bernard Kelly, as the cold took the life from him. He may have been deathly afraid and calling out for help or he may have been despairing and resigned to his death. One thing we do know is that he died needlessly in a dense urban space, the fourth largest city in North America, within feet of life saving warmth and shelter that he couldn’t afford to access. We also know that he met his end in a city that drips with wealth.

A centre of wealth

‘Toronto is the mining capital of the world, and this has been evident on Canada’s two main equity exchanges.’ Thus, ‘in 2018, 49% of mining equity financing globally were done on TSX and TSXV (the city’s stock exchange).’ In this way, Toronto primes the pump for a global network of intensely exploitative and massively destructive mining operations and, as such, it is an exceptional centre of wealth. Across North America, only New York City has a great number of residents who are considered ‘ultra high net worth individuals,’ and who have ‘a net worth of US$30 million or more.’ Whatever we may conclude about the death of Bernard Kelly, we can definitively rule out the possibility that the resources that could have housed him and kept him safe and warm were unavailable.

Out of every 10,000 people who live in Toronto, 30 are homeless and almost half of them have been without housing for more than 6 months. This means that 8,500 people are sleeping rough or turning to overcrowded homeless shelters. It is likely, however, that the number of those who are completely destitute is greatly underestimated and, certainly, the pandemic crisis has greatly intensified the scale of this social disaster. Moreover, such estimates fail to consider the huge numbers of those who are making desperate efforts to keep a roof over their heads by turning to friends and relatives who will take them in or doubling up in unsanctioned and hopelessly overcrowded accommodation.

When I say that the resources exist to deal with this problem and ensure that everyone is housed, I don’t just mean this in the sense that there are vast deposits of wealth that could be accessed to provide a solution over time. I mean instead that the physical housing space that could be opened up today, in order to address the problem, is actually sitting there empty. The Toronto skyline is testimony to a frenzied drive to generate a reckless oversupply of luxury housing. Last year, it was estimated that some 65,000 housing units sat empty in this city. This speaks clearly to a failure to provide housing solutions to tens of thousands of homeless and underhoused people, but the problem is also attributable to the parasitic forms of speculation that are rampant. Housing is bought up by investors who lock it up and hold onto it until such time that a sufficiently enticing profit can be turned by selling it off. Bernard Kelly froze to death so that this destructive pursuit of wealth could continue unabated.

The system of imperialism under which we live ensures that the world is divided into countries that are exploited and poor and those that conduct themselves as exploiters, with their private companies playing the kind of predatory role that is undertaken by the above-mentioned Canadian mining interests. Poverty and destitution are to be found all over this earth and, obviously, these problems exist in the poor and oppressed countries to a much greater degree. However, in a very real sense, the fact that such horrible manifestations of deep social inequality exist so abundantly in the global centres of wealth, is particularly stark evidence of the irrationality and deep injustice that defines the capitalist system.

In a poor country, the vast social problems that imperialism has inflicted would require sustained and extensive efforts to overcome. In the wealthy countries, however, the means to deal effectively with the inexcusable presence of destitution and hunger are at hand and could be applied in the time it took to organise and implement the appropriate measures. Immediately after the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks acted along such lines, taking a census of the homes and property of the rich and rapidly ensuring that the poorest people had adequate shelter.

In Toronto, tens of thousands of people lack adequate shelter, when an immediate solution to their pressing needs is literally sitting there empty. The needless hunger crisis in the city is of the same order. There were 1.45 million visits to Toronto food banks last year, which represents a 47% increase over the previous year and far surpasses the need that existed in the depths of the crisis in 2010. Yet, as food prices soar, the supermarket chains are making robust profits and it is only the greed of their wealthy owners that stands in the way of eliminating hunger and ‘food insecurity’ overnight.

Without a doubt a socialist society would need to engage in long term planning to create a housing supply that met real needs. It would be an enormous undertaking of planning and coordination to ensure public services that were all they could be. However, with resolve and decisive action, we could ensure withing a week that no one had to sleep outside or go without decent food. The dislocation and economic crisis that has been unleashed by the pandemic reveals at every turn the need for a democratic, just and rational society that is based on the needs of the many, rather than the profits of the few.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.