The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has made life significantly more challenging for Toronto’s most vulnerable residents, especially those experiencing homelessness, and advocates say the city isn’t make it any easier.
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker at Sanctuary, told blogTO that between 40 and 50 homeless people had been seeking warmth and shelter at Union Station each day for several months as lockdown measures resulted in the closure of most public indoor spaces, but staff recently blocked off almost all the available seating at the directive of both the city and Metrolinx.
She said the move appears to be an unequivocal attempt to prevent those who’ve been using the space to warm up from having somewhere safe and comfortable to rest.
“A lot of people ended up using Union Station as a place to just sit, charge their devices, stay warm,” Lam told blogTO, explaining that the size of the station allowed residents to remain indoors while spreading out and maintaining a safe distance from one another.
The homelessness advocate said some of her coworkers were at Union doing late-night outreach work at the beginning of February when they first noticed that benches were being flipped over and taped off.
Days later, Lam herself headed over to the transit station and found that nearly all the benches had been flipped over and covered with caution tape.
“That was really concerning,” she said.
The following week, she said she noticed that staff were gathering the benches and wheeling them to corners of the room and stacking them, though she hoped at least some of the seating would be left alone.
“Someone got up from a bench, and they immediately came to stack it,” she said.
As of Feb. 8, most of the seating had been barricaded, she said, but there were still some cushioned seats that people were sitting and sleeping on.
But by Wednesday of that very same week, Lam said all of it had been blocked off.
In a statement sent to blogTO, a city spokesperson said some seating closures in Union Station have been implemented in response to the lockdown and to promote physical distancing.
“This is consistent with the City’s approach during the Stage 1 lockdown early last year,” reads the statement.
“Some seating is still available in the VIA Concourse and the York Concourse where it is in close proximity to transit services to accommodate essential travel. Seating has been reduced in these areas to ensure physical distancing. Once public health guidelines are loosened, some seating will be reinstated depending on the stage of recovery.”
Metrolinx, which manages the GO spaces at Union, has issued similar statements, suggesting that blocking off seating is nothing new and that anyone using the space to warm up will not be asked to leave.
But Lam and other homelessness advocates argue that these statements are untrue, saying they’ve personally witnessed people being told to leave and that ample seating was available to people until recently.
“The only reason I can think of is I think seeing homeless people and the various complications that can come with it can make people uncomfortable, and so the solution to that is ‘let’s get people out of sight and out of mind,'” Lam told blogTO of why the city would want to intentionally displace the homeless.
“It almost feels like an attempt to solve a problem without addressing the root causes.”
But she said this is far from the first time the city has made a decision that makes life more uncomfortable for those without housing, as evidenced by all the forms of hostile architecture than can be found throughout Toronto — including benches with rails in the middle to prevent people from sleeping on them and fencing around parks to prevent encampments.
“When the city continues to remove these options for people, what do you expect people to do?” she said. “It sends a message of displacement and that you’re not welcome here.”
It also begs the question of who public space is really for in Toronto, she said, pointing out that there’s no issue when the public takes over a space for a big event but when people use them as last resorts, they’re criminalized and pushed out.
“I think we’re just saying certain lives matter more than others and vulernable lives just aren’t valued as much,” Lam said.
The Union Station debacle comes as the city is under fire for yet another homelessness-related decision: taking legal action against a local carpenter who has been creating tiny insulated shelters to keep people warm and placing them in city parks.
The move has resulted in outrage from many members of the public, and a petition calling on the city to reverse the decision has garnered more than 80,000 signatures to date.
Lam said rather than spending time and effort on reducing the existing resources and aids for Toronto’s homeless residents, they should instead be focusing on creating more affordable housing and hotel shelters where people can stay until housing gets built.
Currently, the waitlist for a bachelor unit in supportive housing is between eight and 10 years long.
“During COVID, they said a lot of ‘We’re in this together,’ but the reality is we’re not in this together because if you’re poor you’re not in it, if you’re homeless you’re not in it, if you’re a POC you’re not in it, if you’re a minimum wage worker you’re definitely not in it,” Lam said.
“The statement sounds great but it just isn’t true.”