Chairman's Desk

The homeless need our compassion and commitment to act urgently and creatively

The leaves have fallen and begun to disappear. The cold has arrived. And as harsh as that cold will be, it won’t be nearly as harsh as the reality it has brought into sharp relief.

That reality is a simple one: we are failing our sisters and brothers (yes, they are our sisters and brothers and our sons and daughters and our mothers and fathers and nephews and nieces) who are homeless.

What’s more, by our collective neglect, we have allowed this problem to grow into a crisis, or an emergency, or whatever other fancy word you might find to take some of the sting out of what has happened.

But for those who are on our streets or in our emergency shelters, there is only one word that will do: nightmare.

Homelessness should have always been at the top of the public policy list. But, for years, it has consistently been allowed to slip down that list by governments of all stripes and at all levels. Why? Because collectively we didn’t care enough to demand better.

And that was pretty bloody dumb. After all, the data is clear: the single most important determinant of someone’s success in life is a stable roof over their head.

All of life’s prospects — including social, economic and health — for our homeless population are as hopeless as their life on the streets. Life expectancy is half. Mental health challenges are significantly increased. Prospects of entry to the job market are almost non-existent. Connections with family and friends are often frayed to the breaking point.

Now that the number of homeless sits in the tens of thousands, and the issue cannot be avoided by the public eye and has raised our collective consciousness, what are we doing about it?

To her credit, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow has been on this issue for some time and has made dealing with this nightmare, priority one since day one.

But civil society — that’s all of us — has to do its part.

University Health Network (UHN) is working to do just that.

With a path-making program, UHN is partnering with the United Way and City of Toronto to build a new four-storey building on hospital grounds. (Disclosure: I am a trustee of University Health Network.)

Each with its own bathroom, kitchen, and bed, these apartments will provide a permanent home for people who currently have no where to go. A place that isn’t conceived and operated as a housing initiative or a charitable cause but founded on the importance of health care.

Think of it this way. These places will have two front doors: one to the person’s new home and one to all the resources of our health care system. And that’s the crucial part.

It was after seeing so many homeless people walk out of the hospital and despairingly right back in again that Dr. Andrew Boozary decided there had to be a better way.

With generous support from the Gattuso Institute, Boozary led the development of this program which plans to scale and spread its creative approach to help others tackle our homeless epidemic.

This is as exciting as it is sensible. Medically, it drastically increases the chances of positive health and well being. Socially, it improves not only the lives of those previously homeless but the livability of our communities. And finally, economically, it is far less costly to provide housing for people than have them stay in hospitals.

And so, this holiday season, let’s commit ourselves to two things: First, let’s make an extra effort to respond compassionately to those living among us who are homeless. Second, let’s commit ourselves to addressing this issue with the urgency it deserves. And let’s do so in creative ways which harness all the resources of our community to deal with the structural problems our sisters and brother on the street currently face.

This article first appeared in The Toronto Star on November 19, 2023.

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