Saturday, 28 May 2016


When I feel myself going to a dark place, a place of sadness and despair it is often accompanied by feelings of depression and grief. It comes in waves. Those waves are often attached to dates. The birthdays or the date on which the person passed. Grief. Grief and loss are powerful. The pain of losing people in your life who leave this world unexpectedly is hard to process. It's really hard to process when you feel like the system we live in was the contributor to their deaths.
Tomorrow Wendy would have been 37 years old. I found myself this week looking up old articles about her. Reading the ones her family friends wrote trying to discredit her truths. Reading the articles about her death, the wiki page, her FB page and re reading a hilarious zine she made me for me when I left working at Street Health.
What struck me hard while thinking about Wendy this week was thinking about her son, Korin. I think Korin would be 16/17 now. Wendy loved her son.  She wanted him in her life and she stayed in his even when the adoptive parents begged her to tell her son she didn't want him, which she refused to do. She wanted him. Wendy suffered a great deal of grief and sadness over the loss of her son to the state.  I don't know where Korin is. But I think about him often. I think about what I would say to him about his mom. What stories I would tell him. Which ones I would include. I would tell him about all the things Wendy accomplished in what was really a short period of time. I would tell him about her sadness and her despair of not having him with her. I would tell him how funny she was and how fucking brilliant she was.
Today I was having a conversation with my girlfriends about sex work and safety. We talked about Wendy, about the Bad Date Coalition and the Sex Crimes Unit about her wanting to be a lawyer. I started reflecting on my own feelings of burn out and what draws us to the work and organizing we do. How we engage with it because we have compassion and understanding, our own living experiences. How the system wants people like Wendy to burn out and fade away. To not be able to struggle any more. Wendy was in emotional pain and crisis for a long time before she took her life. It could have been totally accidental that she died. We'll never know. Wendy's death out of so many people who have passed on that I have known, I find really hard to move on from. Maybe because there were so many players complicit in her death. Maybe because she left behind Korin and they were never reunited properly in to each others lives and don't have each other now.
Tomorrow Wendy would have been 37 years old. I wonder what she would have accomplished in the last few years.  I wonder what kind of lawyer she would have been. She was really smart and I think she would have been brilliant. I will always hold Wendy so deep in my heart. She had a complicated life and is missed so much by so many people.
Tomorrow Wendy would have been 37 years old. She probably would have lied and said she was 35.. maybe? And all we can do is hold people we have lost in the light and in our hearts. Remember their legacy. Hold on to our memories and keep moving forward. I miss Wendy amongst the number of other people I miss all the time. Today, this week, tomorrow I just miss her a great deal more.

Sunday, 8 May 2016


It's Sunday night and I'm sitting here sipping chamomile tea with added drops of passion flower and trying to feel ok before I start another work week. Trying to avoid taking a prescription drug to help me cope with the anxiety I feel. I have been working front-line for over a decade and in that time I have shared space with hundreds of people. I have, along with my fellow co workers been support to so many people who struggle to live in this system we are forced to live under. And I have supported people in their transitions to death, helped organize their funerals, supported people who have been assaulted, experienced horrible sexual violence, and violence and then just tried to be a good support around people's mental health and substance use, getting ID, writing a letter of support, writing letters to people in prison and supporting people with their health and so on.

And I too have this deep lived experience that brought me to the work I do but that I also struggle to fully heal from. And there are many of us working in harm reduction and being support for people who are struggling through this work. As we bare witness to countless overdose deaths, countless deaths of people who never made it past 50, the ever crushing broken systems and more.

How do we take care of ourselves?

I became an advocate for people living with Hep C when I began working with a man who was aboriginal, co infected and used drugs more than anyone I ever met. He was an avid user, he loved them and was also part of the 60's scoop. He was funny and loved music and we bonded a great deal. I learned an incredible amount from him. So when he died of AIDS after being one of his support workers for 5 years I felt an intense amount of grief.  He was the the first person I worked with.

I felt so much grief when Heather died, she was the second person I started working with. 7 years she was homeless and the first two weeks of moving in to her new place she was found dead in the shared house she had just moved in to. I helped to plan her funeral and her family still hadn't been informed that she was dead despite the fact that I had given the police all the information they needed to contact her sisters and her kids, and her extended family with. The night before the funeral I looked up her last name in the phone book and took a guess and picked a name and sure enough it was her sister and I had to give them the news that their sister had passed away and the funeral was the next day. I have countless stories like these of people I have known and worked with. That hold deep in my heart, in my memories and also keep my flame burning.

I work at a job where the lobby is fully of memories of people connected to what often feels like a small town. The cuts to programs, the lack of housing, the discrimination people face in the health care system, living in poverty, prison, drug prohibition, colonization, racism, homophobia, transphobia, chronic conditions, and so on are killing people and I go to work every week and I am witness and holding space with people and I feel traumatized. I hate to use vicarious trauma because what we're experiencing is trauma. I have never had clinical supervision in my job, not formally. I speak informally with my co-workers. We process everything and have a tight working relationship. But at the end of the day I often go home tired, sad and depressed. I feel the weight of this system and I feel waves of different emotions.

There isn't a lot of space for us, as workers to come together and talk about the impacts. We have barely any space between the last death or the last incident to breathe and heal and process. I feel so selfish even writing about this. But even in our own personal lives we experience loss and struggle and violence and the crushing weight of the system. And in between all of this, we have to reorganize ourselves in the system we are working in, to collect more data, see more people, advocate constantly and watch layers of new bureaucracy form to shift and cut and redirect what should be direct services and/or housing and/or an increase in social assistance etc. 

And so I am writing this thinking about how do we keep going as we work towards changing the system we live in? How do we or how do I maintain the ability to do good work and be present and supportive when it feels endless? How do we support each other and the communities we work in and stay healthy long enough to keep doing it? What is our longevity? Can we come together and hold space with each other and talk about what is happening honestly? What solutions and ideas do we have that we never share or have space to talk about that could shift the dominant systems and discourse we are working in? How are we less reactive?

And so this is what I am thinking about as I take my lasts sips of tea and hope that I will sleep soundly through the night before I start the next work week. I hope that I can maintain strength and presence in it. And I'm hoping to engage in more dialogue and to feel more optimistic and hopeful and well as we keep going.

In Solidarity and Love,

Friday, 22 April 2016

UNGASS - WHO Statement at Opening Session will not propel us forward

This week people have been meeting in NYC for UNGASS  a high level meeting bringing heads of states, policy makers, NGOs, people impacted by the drug war, people from all over the world to discuss the war on drugs, drug policy and making agreements moving forward. This session opened with a number speakers including the Director of the World Health Organization who people have praised for delivering a good speech.

First of all the WHO are supposed to support scientific evidence, the speech given by Dr. Chan is not scientifically based and continues to be damaging towards people who use drugs and us moving away from policies that criminalize people. Many of her comments were incredibly stigmatizing to people living with Hep C, HIV and people who use drugs.

Calling it a global drug problem is the first part I take issue with. It's not the drugs themselves that are the problem. It is the war on drugs that is the problem. It is the countries who have needle exchange bans, it's the countries who force people in to treatment handcuffing them to beds forcing them in to withdrawal, it's the countries who execute drug users and dealers, its the countries with violent drug cartels and CIA involvement, its all the countries that arrest and cage people for what they put in their bodies. Our global problem is the War on Drugs, a War on People.

She goes on to say "The health and social harm caused by the illicit use of psychoactive drugs is enormous. This harm includes direct damage to the physical and mental health of users, drastically reducing the length and quality of their lives.
Drug use harms families and communities, also through crimes against property and people. It contributes to traffic and domestic injuries, child abuse, and gender-based sexual violence and other forms of violence"

The WHO needs to speak with evidence. Majority of people who use drugs are not harmed by the use of drugs. They are harmed by prohibition and oppressive drug policies. The biggest harm is prohibition, marginalization, discrimination and stigma that statements like this generate. It is incredibly offensive and does not speak to the massive harms criminalization, prohibition, war, racism, poverty, capitalism, incarceration actually cause in the lives of people around the world.

"Worldwide, an estimated 27 million people have drug use disorders. More than 400,000 of these people die each year. " I would like to know where Dr. Chan got this statistic and what she is using to diagnose a "drug use disorder" and where she got 400,000 people from? The UN states that more than 200,000 people die of drug related deaths each year. Where is the 400,000 from? and what are the factors that contributed to their deaths? Does she mean overdose? War? death from chronic conditions? This is a super inflammatory statement without explanation. What she excludes from these remarks is causation and that is quite problematic. Prohibition, criminalization, the war on drugs also means that people are using drugs that they have no information about, are using tainted drugs, are using when they were forced in to periods of withdrawal, executed by states, dying from zero access to life saving medications, are being killed in drug wars and so on. If we ended the war on drugs and prohibition we would dramatically see a decline in drug related deaths. That is the harm. so let's be real about what the harms are.

And then this part "Injection drug use accounts for an estimated 30% of new HIV infections outside sub-Saharan Africa. Injection drug use contributes significantly to epidemics of hepatitis B and C in all regions of the world. Around 10 million people who inject drugs are infected with hepatitis C. And it is very expensive to treat hepatitis C; even the richest countries in the world cannot afford it."
People do not have access to sterile equipment to inject drugs in many places around the world. In parts of the worlds it's totally illegal, it is criminalized. It was only recently that the US lifted the ban on federal funding for needle exchange. Criminalization is also a HUGE factor that contributes to the epidemics. People are living in fear and taking risk. And lets be totally real, people who inject drugs would not be infected at the rates they are with Hep C if it wasn't for state neglect all around the world who contrubited to the massive epidemic we have today. 180 million people living with hep c globally. The biggest contributors to the global epidemic since the 60's  has been the re-using of non sterilazed medical equipment for medical procedures, tainted blood product,  and mass vaccination campaigns. Governments and corporations did not care about our safety globally, they are the biggest contributors. People who inject drugs should not be blamed for it's transmission.

The high costs of the cures is also because of governments and their trade deals and patenting laws and property protections for greedy corporations. The responsibility lies with the governments and industries who spread hep c and so they owe everyone who has Hep c access to these massively profit driven cures. The costs associated with the drugs is their doing and responsibility. Same goes with the epidemic of HIV amongst people who inject drugs. Less than 4% of people who inject drugs living with HIV have access to HIV medication and many people who inject drugs living with HIV don't have access to sterile equipment and supplies due to bans and criminalization and lack of state funding and support. This is ALL state neglect.

If we are to truly end the drug war and have sound evidence based policy, these massive organizations with power, need to stop perpetuating myths and stigmatizing people who use drugs. And we need to stop praising them for the small crumbs they offer us. And this line "People with drug dependence can be helped and returned to productive roles in society." Is so utterly offensive. Drug users, those with "dependence" are productive members in society. Using drugs does not necessarily make you an unproductive member of society. It is not mutually exclusive. If we are to truly change the prevailing attitudes we need these dominating organizations to stop perpetuating myths and fiction and stigma and start speaking with truth and we need to continue to be critical of their responses.

Dr. Chan's speech was highly disappointing. Let's stop giving her accolades. I expected more from the WHO. Hopefully this week will have influenced a different narrative for the future if we are to move forward in a more sound,  compassionate way.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Reflections on Yesterday's Public Meeting and the Project - JHS, The Works - Toronto Police

Over 100 people came out for yesterday's meeting about police and their involvement with Toronto Public Health - The Works and the John Howard Society. This project was developed in a 3 week period without proper consultation with people who use drugs or any consultations with agencies that would be affected by plain clothes /undercover police and "outreach" workers doing outreach to communities in 11, 12 , 13 and 14 divisions. A project like this should have gone through intense and proper consultation before applying or finding they shouldn't apply for the $99,000 they received for it. At the same time many harm reduction programs in this city are operating on breadcrumbs they receive from the Toronto Urban Health Fund - $10,000 here, $30,000 there, the police and this partnership received $99,000. Imagine what we could do with that much money? That much money could pay for over 5,000 hours at $18/hr for harm reduction workers with lived experienced to be doing outreach and connecting peer to peer. This funding does not include the officers salaries and what we heard yesterday was that many of these officers received overtime for participating in this project. We have seen phenomenal cuts in this city especially to homeless prevention programs, cuts to winter survival funds, cuts to outreach , cuts to shelters and other programs and at the same time the only budget never cut is that of Toronto Police which now sits at $1 billion annually.

In my over a decade of experience of working and  being incredibly active in Harm Reduction here in Toronto, I have never heard us collectively say we need to work with the police in projects like these. It is actually the opposite. Many workers are from criminalized communities that are targeted by the police. The service users who access our organizations are subjected to ongoing harassment and targeting by the police from ticketing, to carding, to arresting, to brutality. We see our organizations as demilitarized spaces, sanctuaries, safe spaces where police cannot enter, a well recognized condition of our relationship with police.

The funding for this project came about through two things. The targeting of a methadone clinic by an offensive, right wing City Councilor Caeser Palacio who had no idea the clinic of 25 years even existed in his ward but one day found out and mustered up hatred and panic about the clinic, conflating a situation that didn't exist and further stigmatizing the people who access the clinic which no one paid any notice too. The second event that contributed to this project being actualized was the Cornerstone Shelter at Oakwood and Vaughan and the NIMBY neighbours and the BIA who also mustered up a false narrative about homeless people and tried to stop the shelter from moving the all of a few blocks. Opposition to these NIMBY neighbours from people who support the shelter was quickly organized and the shelter saved. Consultation with the BIA and what I imagine to be residents associations and the police helped to fuel this pilot project which the John Howard Society and Toronto Public Health - The Works who then became a part of. A snitch line - basically, for neighbours to call if they see someone pan handling, homeless, using substances - a social cleansing project - gentrification. "The Street Outreach Project"- a 6 month pilot project currently under way . This project was not widely announced to the broader harm reduction community and we only heard about it when interactions on the street began.

Majority of people in attendance at yesterday's meeting were in opposition to this project. Harm Reduction workers many of them drug users spoke up, out and against the project and articulated consistently the harms and issues this project is creating. And so a conversation - a back and forth continued through out the meeting. I sat across from an officer who was a part of arresting me and 30 other people at an OCAP demo over shelters all of two years ago. The irony not lost on me that "this person wants to be part of an outreach project" . Or the cop that turned to me from 14 division and told me point blank that I needed to work on changing the perception on the street to which I immediately responded like you're doing, in regards to the shooting death and murder of Sammy Yatim killed by your fellow officer in your division?

I walked away from this meeting so heart broken. We never invited the police to collaborate with us. We are not collaborators. We have been responding to the needs of communities - drug using communities for decades. We don't need police any where near the work we do. We don't need to be pushing projects to fund the police to have naloxone when thousands of the real first responders - drug users and the family and friends of people who use opioids should be first to get naloxone. We actually need the police to not show up at an overdose so that people feel safe to call EMS. As it stands now many people continue to die from overdose death from the very real fear of calling the police. And we should certainly not be playing a role in social cleansing or gentrifcation. Why would we, we'd be social cleansing ourselves out of our own workplaces and neighbourhoods. But this is what this project actually is. A tool for "social order".

What was the bravest thing I was witness to yesterday was my fellow workers speaking up one after another stating "I am a drug user, I am opposed to this project and heres why..." saying this over and over to a panel of police sympathizers and police. That's a hard thing to do.

The reaction especially from John Howard Society was to continuously brush aside concerns and the very real examples of harms and distrust this is creating. They constantly said they are going to continue and not once fully acknowledged what people in the room were saying in a meaningful way. This is incredibly problematic. The harms and distrust cannot be measured and might take years for us to gain back. An evaluative component is not a part of this "Pilot Project", which there is no excuse for given the nature of this project and the funding they have received.

At the end of the day these organizations need to ask themselves which relationship is more important to them, the one with the Toronto Police or with People Who Use Drugs? I at the very least hope that the Works who contracts out to the 50 agencies in this city handing out harm reduction supplies stops their involvement with the police and gets back to being in solidarity with the rest of us. We know not all staff inside the organization are supportive to this project and to them I am thankful. 

I have little hope for JHS who have demonstrated a real lack of understanding yesterday in to the problematic role they are playing. If you live and or work in 13 division and you see your new neighbours - cause JHS only just moved there recently  - doing outreach be aware they are doing this with plain clothes officers. 

These organizations and everyone else can not negate the very real negative role police play in the lives of people who use drugs - especially in the lives of people on the street, people from racialized and indigenous communities. Like my fellow worker Peter so eloquently stated at the meeting this project and the ways in which police target the "low hanging fruit" people using drugs who are on the streets is class war. And we as workers in harm reduction do not want to engage in this. This project needs to end. #nocopsonoutreach #nocollaborating

Sunday, 31 August 2014

International Overdose Awareness Day

                                            (Frank beside the CounterFIT drug users memorial)

Today, August 31, is International Overdose Awareness Day and while there are more and more calls for access to naloxone a life saving antidote to opioid overdose which people need access too,  we need to also include a call for other methods of prevention of overdose deaths.

We need an end to this capitalist system that sees profits over people and has forced people to live in the very conditions that increase people’s susceptibility to overdose. We need an end to war,  and the classist and incredibly racist drug war. An end to colonization, poverty, mass incarceration, racism, homophobia, exploitation, and patriarchy.

When I think of the various reasons the people I have known, whom I loved and who have died, it isn’t just about whether they had access to naloxone, naloxone wouldn't have saved all of their lives. It is because they didn’t have housing. It’s because they were aboriginal and they were personally and deeply impacted by genocide and colonization, of the 60’s scoop and the residential school system. It was because they lived in poverty and coped with mental health issues where services were lacking and out of reach for them to access. It was because they were incarcerated and forced to be sober and came out of prison and used. It’s because they had their children taken away by the classist, racist children's aid system that makes it impossible to ever get your kids back. It’s because they used without anyone knowing and hid their use because of stigma and shame perpetuated by a society that looks down on people who use drugs. It’s because they had health issues that they couldn’t get treatment for because of a system that discriminates against them and isn’t universal and accessible free from judgment.  It’s because they lived in deep poverty, which had negative health implications making them sick. It’s because they lived with HIV and Hep C and couldn’t get access to meds that could save their lives because they used drugs, and on and on.

When I think of all the reasons why people I know have died from overdose I think about the systems of oppression that we are forced to live under. That criminalize people for what they put in their body and disproportionately target people primarily based on their race and class. When I think about international overdose awareness day I think it’s time we started to expand our demands. Our right to live free from discrimination, criminalization, poverty, war, and colonization. Where people cannot only be surviving but thriving. Where everyone can actually access our basic needs: housing, food, water, health. Where our bodies aren’t profitable and our lives are seen as valuable no matter who we are.

The people I have known and lost are dead because of the systems we are forced to live under. We need to come together and build solidarity amongst each other to fight to live in a better world where we are not governed by the interests of the few. The few who are destroying our world and destroying people’s lives. We need to continue to build resistance in our homes, in our neighbourhoods, and amongst each other and build better systems that are non-hierarchical and inclusive.

Until All Of Us Are Free


Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Abuse and Harassment Escalated to All New Level.

The last 24 hours have been an emotional experience. It is hard to believe that our landlord/property managers could stoop to this recent all time low but they did. Things escalated again after the fire next door that took the lives of two people. It is my understanding that the rest of the tenants have now been housed which I was so happy to hear about. Unfortunately, our landlord/property manager took this tragic experience to begin an onslaught of harassment. Not concerned about whether our smoke alarms worked or if we were ok, no they concerned themselves with the use of our decks.

About 8 1/2 years ago I moved in to the 1 bedroom apartment in Chinatown/Kensignton Market, where I call home. I was leaving a long relationship that had become unhealthy and was looking to live on my own. I live with post traumatic stress disorder and I thought that living alone might also be helpful in managing my symptoms which can be difficult, overwhelming and hard. I could control my environment, making sure doors are always locked, windows locked, what light I need to leave on etc. My PTSD is a result of some fairly traumatic things that happened to me. Violence I experienced at the hands of men.  I am not in control of my environment completely and nor is it as safe as I wish it could be. I, along with the other tenants  who live in the building also have to deal with abusive nature and harassment of our "property managers/landlord". We also have to deal with the harsh reality of living in a system that allows landlords to perpetuate violent, harassing behaviour with little recourse.

I didn't originally begin renting from the current property managers,  the building belonged to a different owner and a month later the current owners took over as our "landlord". I 'm writing landlord in quotation as I write my rental cheques to a numbered company and the property managers, David and Michael always refer to the landlord as a landlord and not by name, trying to keep secret who it is but we know it's their family and we know they all work in and own the jewelery store downstairs from us. We did a search to figure out who they were when they tried to evict us 8 years ago and they lost.  8 years ago is when the harassment began. It started with letters, and neglect of our units, threats of eviction. It started with interactions with the one property manager, David, who screamed at us in almost every interaction, having no communication skills. It began when they realized that they could be getting double for our units and that we paid to "little". They took us to court, trying to evict us from our homes, my neighbours had lived in these units for 20 plus years and they lost.  They tried to just boldly increase our rents by $300, which was illegal. They make sure we pay a rent increase every year as to the provincial designated amount but don't attend to basic maintenance issues. They make sure to send us harassing letters with threats of eviction with every communication.

(just a sampling of the threatening letters)
This is part of the reality of living in a city where housing is scarce, where you spend way to much on rent, almost all your income, to be sometimes treated in this power imbalanced, abusive, harassing way. I don't want to move. I've thought about it. But where would my neighbours go, they don't have a lot of income? Why should they have to move? My place is my home, their places are their homes and we certainly won't be bullied out of them.

(our destroyed plants)
Two days ago the landlord , possibly himself with the workers who are building our decks and putting a new roof on, took all our plants and plant pots and threw them in the laneway making sure they were damaged and destroyed.

The Japanese maple that just started to bud, the succulents that have been growing in pots for over 30 years, the red maple, cute and small that lived on the deck for also more than 30 years, the gorgeous lillies that bloom every year increasing in quantity with every new summer.
(my lilies :( )
Clay pots, and rocks that my neighbour brought home from the property she grew up on where her family used to live but was sold after her mother died this last year and the chicks and hens that grew at the base of the maple, they originally came  from Hungary decades ago. The pots that were home to tomatoes, lavender, morning glories, a beautiful vine, echinacea, kale, herbs, flowers.  These were removed and destroyed without notice. Dumped and broken in the lane way.

I called Michael first. David's brother. He denied knowing anything but said he disagreed with his brother and wasn't going to be our property manager anymore. I didn't hate Michael the way I hate David. He didn't start screaming at you right away or threaten you with eviction with every conversation. He wasn't all that nice either but he isn't David. I called David. He played dumb. Said he didn't know there was work going on until I mentioned to him that he was seen on the deck the day before yelling at his brother while the workers were out there working, building the new decks. He said he didn't know anything about anything. But he knew. He stumbled on his words, he's been threatening us with removing them for years. He demanded $12,000 from me for the new deck and new roof.
(2006 - my first garden on the deck)
We had no idea they were even going to do work on them, they had given us no notice. Nor is it our responsibility to pay for the roof and decks. These haven't been replaced in over 30 years. We've battled over the use of the decks. We had to have a lawyer involved to stop him from removing our things in the past. But this time, he just did it. With no shame. We called the police, they came 4 hours later and took a report from my neighbour. My one neighbour discovered they were in the laneway. What pots were not broken were taken before we got to them. When I arrived home all that was left was a pile of soil.

We looked through it trying to save some of the chicks and hens. Who ever was responsible for throwing all of it down off the decks made sure our stuff was destroyed. The clay pots were in pieces. There were over 40 pots on three decks, 2 of our decks are quite large.  We now have to file with the Landlord Tenant Board to be compensated for this destruction of our property, this will take time.

I visited with my neighbour yesterday. We both cried while we spoke about the destruction of our plants and pots, the bullying and abuse. We all know the end goal is to get us out. They forced out our neighbour and her young daughter a few years ago, let the apartment sit empty for a year, did some renos, made one of the bedrooms in to two and doubled the rent. The new tenants pay double what we pay. He could get double.  But we are in this together. We won't be bullied out of our homes. I am crying while I type this. I think of the power we have when we have fought back but I also feel anger and sadness when I think about the destruction of our things. The cruelty of destroying our beautiful plants. This was an act of violence and one I feel incredibly emotional about. My neighbours on either side of me have lived here for over 30 years. They are good tenants and good neighbours. Everyone has a right to a home. One free from violence and harassment. We may get compensated, they may get charged which I am doubtful of, but this doesn't stop the harassment and this certainly doesn't replace what was ours. I am sad but I am also grateful to my neighbours who act unified together.  Where ever you live, you should know your neighbours and I am grateful I know mine and that we look out for each other. We aren't going anywhere, we will fight back and so far the response from friends has been really sweet with offers of new plants and pots. But in our neighbourhoods we need to be organized as tenants, to meet and fight back unified together. This type of abuse from landlords happens throughout the neighbourhood and throughout the city and there are strategies beyond court and tribunals we could and should be using. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

These are the Conditions People are Forced to Live in

Yesterday, March 20, 2014, two of my neighbours were killed in a rooming house fire in the neighbourhood of Kensington Market. Twelve people had to be rescued from the burning semi-detached home, 18 people reportedly lived there including 2 children. This is a huge tragedy and sadly tragedies like this continue all across the city.

(rooming house on St. Andrews (Kensington Market)

(side of building)

(side of building and where my neighbour I said hi to the most lived. )

In 2007 a fire broke out in a rooming house at the corner of Spadina and Baldwin, people were stuck on the roof of the building and needed to be rescued from their rooms, no one died in that fire but many of its residents ended up homeless unable to secure affordable accommodation.   The building was continuously used as a squat until the most recent fire, it has had two subsequent fires since the initial fire posing as a hazard for the rest of the block, one that I fear as I live next door. But it is also land that could be used to build a new building with adequate affordable housing that people living in poverty could once again reside in. These abandoned properties sit empty and derelict all across Toronto.
(rooming house on the corner of Spadina and Baldwin that was destroyed by fires.)

Councillor Adam Vaughan, the councillor for the ward, took to the media yesterday demanding further licensing for rooming houses and never once in his statements to the media did he say anything about the need for adequate affordable housing. We are in the midst of a housing crisis. Everywhere you look in this city you see one condo development after another for people who can “afford” to buy their home. These new developments are often being built on and or existing where more affordable housing once stood or could. And many of these units are sitting empty  and/or  bought up by property companies and rented at high rental rates.

Many people in Toronto are priced out of the housing market in a city with no rent control, a less than 1% vacancy rate, and 90,000 households on the waiting list for social housing. A wait list that will take decades to clear. The building of social housing ground to a halt in the 90’s by all levels of government and “revitalization” projects are decreasing the social housing stock. Our emergency shelters are overflowing and turning people away nightly. They are full because of the very lack of affordable housing.

Many of us renters are renting places that are not adequately repaired or maintained. Desperate for accommodations people are renting places that are not suitable for living in, cockroach infested, bed bug infested, broken appliances, lack of exits or windows, apartments and rooms divided in to small spaces that do not equate to the amount of rent they are charging. Competition for rental units leaves many people scrambling for places to live and taking what they can even if it’s not suitable to live in. (like the rooming house on St. Andrews) It’s a landlord and property owners paradise out there. They have to do minimal work to maintain your home, can rent out "illegal" units or units not up to code if they want and can charge basically whatever they want because the demand is high and so are our rents. Landlord rights give them a right to also increase your rent yearly. You obtain a rental unit at one price and your rent can keep increasing every year. It doesn’t matter if your income isn’t increasing or that your unit hasn’t been maintained or that you live in a dump.

If you know the system and how to navigate it, you know that you can contact the city to have an inspector come to your home to deal with complaints of maintenance and repairs but you also know that these inspectors have very little power in terms of fining or forcing your landlord/property manager to actually repair or maintain your unit. And it can be a risk to start having inspectors in as this can sometimes escalate abuse from a landlord/property manager to harass and work on ways to force you out. There is very little protection from this. If you are living in Toronto Community Housing, you are often waiting months, even years for repairs and maintenance on your unit and/ building. This is unacceptable. Legal clinics that offer services to people on low income to help fight landlord tenant issues are facing proposed cuts by the province and reduced ability to meet the ever increasing demand for services. The local legal clinic helped my neighbours and I fight our landlord when faced with an illegal eviction. They continued to help us for a few more years to deal with our landlord who not only neglected our units, was constantly finding ways to disrupt the enjoyment of our homes but was also verbally abusive to us. We know the system and how to navigate it, (I had a familiarity with it through work) but many people do not and there are many many barriers that exist to them accessing it. 

The people who lived next door to me, on St. Andrews in what is being called an “illegal” rooming house were reportedly paying $400-$500 a month for a small room with access to a shared kitchen and shared washroom. Apparently there were 10 small rooms on two levels with a narrow dark stair case. One entrance and a roof exit with limited access. 18 people living in this space. People are forced to live in these conditions because people cannot afford the rents that exist today. They cannot find reasonable affordable accommodations and many people are living in poverty without enough income to pay the exorbitant amount of rent required to live in a “better place”.

The issue with the building on St. Andrews was not just about licensing, or the harmful neglect, greed and exploitation by the property owners. It is a continued war on people who cannot afford to live in this city. It's a continued war on poor people, on working people. On people who cannot afford the rent due to low incomes, low wages and low social assistance rates. And it is the neglect of all levels of government, on all political parties, in making housing (and income) a priority and actually doing something about it. This has gone on for decades. It has created the conditions in which landlords and property owners can get away with renting inadequate and unsafe housing. The type of housing that can lead to someone's death. Even Councillor Vaughan had the opportunity to make housing a political issue, make the links and he didn’t. This is a disservice to those who lost their lives and their homes yesterday in the 3 alarm fire.  

And while we continue to live in this capitalist system with  property and land ownership, of landlords and property owners, we as tenants, as residents, as neighbours need to be organizing and making demands that the city, and the government improve the conditions of all current housing rental stock, give back tenants rights, rights lost during the Harris government and never returned by the Liberals, to bring back rent control and implement licensing for all landlords and property owners and to build some affordable, safe, accessible and adequate housing.  I would go further and suggest that there needs to be a moratorium on the development of condos, an increase in rental property and revitalization projects should only exist to improve the housing conditions of the people already residing there. And the same energy that has gone in to fighting big box stores in Kensington Market with multiple  community meetings, petitions, fundraising, organizing efforts should be the same energy used to fight for better housing in our neighbourhood. Kensington Market isn't just about the "businesses" it's also and more importantly about the people who live here.

These tragedies will continue. Everyone should have a home. One that is safe, adequate and affordable.

May the two men whose lives were lost, rest in peace.

People should be angry. We should be uniting and fighting for better, adequate and affordale living conditions for everyone. Enough is enough.

In Sol,

Zoë Dodd