Shelter from the Elements: Moving Forward on Jobs, Justice, and the Climate

The following comments were delivered at a panel discussion entitled “Connections in Crisis: Extending the Jobs, Justice, Climate conversation,” held in Toronto on September 21, 2015.

On September 21, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) took action on the issue of homelessness in Toronto. We blocked the intersection at Yonge and Dundas, the busiest in Canada, for some forty minutes. We picked this spot because it is where, in January of this year, a homeless man froze to death in a bus shelter. When he died, no one intervened or seemed to notice but, on the day we held our action, thousands had to pay attention, including the political decision makers who carry ultimate responsibility for such needless tragedies.

After this death, one of four that occurred in the space of a week, OCAP took a mass delegation to the Mayor’s office and assurances were offered that the supposed policy of reducing overcrowding by keeping shelter occupancy at levels of 90% or less would actually be enforced. While some resources were reluctantly allocated, the city’s own “daily shelter census” confirms that the policy has not been adhered to. In April, the 124 bed Hope Shelter at College and McCaul closed and no replacement facility has been secured to date. The 60 bed Second Base Youth Shelter near Kennedy and Eglington is set to close next month. In November, the Toronto City Council will vote on a plan to remove 634 beds from the system by demolishing two shelters on George Street, in downtown east. This “redevelopment” initiative will only permit the eventual return of 100 of those beds. Clearly, and the city’s own report on this issue confirms this, the plan is to close homeless shelters in the core area and try to relocate them in suburban settings, where a lack of services and transportation will have deadly consequences.

It’s abundantly obvious that this is all driven by the needs of upscale redevelopment and the transformation of Toronto into a fully fledged neoliberal city, where wealth and power are focused in the central area and poverty and homelessness are shut away in underserviced, over-policed and heavily racialized suburban enclaves. This agenda requires that provision for the survival needs of homeless people be sparse and dispersed, with scant regard for the notion that a city of such wealth as this one might, at least, accept that shelter from the elements is a basic right.

This glaring injustice seems to me to drive home a basic point about the way in which our fights for social and economic rights intersect with the struggle for climate justice. Developers’ interests are put ahead of the lives of destitute people. The homeless collateral damage of the austerity agenda are to be made invisible at risk of their very survival so that the cash registers can jingle without interruption. A society capable of such profit-driven brutality and irrationality is not one that can be expected to address the climate crisis. A system that leaves the homeless on the streets will not leave the fossil fuel reserves in the ground. The social abandonment of the homeless in Toronto points to both challenges we face and solutions we must create. In this regard, I’d like to suggest four considerations that I think apply in taking forward the Jobs, Justice, and the Climate initiative.

1. First all, I strongly feel we must be clear that the enemy is a social and economic system, based on profit and exploitation. Some 80% of fossil fuel reserves worth $27 trillion have to be left where they are. A sustainable, just, and rational relationship with the planet we live on has to be created. That will require a level of democratically driven planning and cooperation that is simply at odds with a system where our economic and productive activity is subordinated to the profit needs of a handful of ultra rich families. The movement we’re building will have get past a concept of making this system kinder and gentler and embrace firmly anti-capitalist politics.

2. Secondly, the climate crisis reaches this critical point as the long neoliberal assault becomes an even more virulent post-2008 hyper-austerity. We are dealing with political power structures that have become ever more uncompromising and extreme. To win immediate gains on either climate or social justice will require large, powerful, and single-minded movements that realize what they are up against and act accordingly. To force retreats from those in power in this period will require movements that are sufficiently disruptive to leave them no choice. Our message is always important but this will not be a PR battle. Austerity and climate change will continue unless we can drive them back.

3. The movement we build must defend gains but leave no one behind. We can’t accept a city where homeless people die on the streets. We can’t move forward if we don’t act to challenge racist policing. We must confront the abandonment of injured workers and demand full rights for those without status. How can it be, that the indigenous people of Shoal Lake must boil their water when they live next to the lake that supplies the needs of the city of Winnipeg? How can we say we are moving forward in our struggle if we disregard the fact that refugees are drowning at sea or facing guarded borders at they seek to survive? Our movement must overcome the agenda of abandonment by fighting for all who are denied their rights.

4. Finally, the Jobs, Justice, and the Climate march did inspire many and pointed to real possibilities but it was certainly far from the model we should base ourselves on. To move forward and create the kind of democratic inclusiveness required, future initiatives can’t simply invite people to participate in what has already been decided. Reaching out to communities under attack and facing austerity, poverty, racism and climate crisis means more than asking them to sign on to a plan but, rather, to be part of elaborating it.

The most essential factor in a fight for social change is a widespread understanding of the fact that things cannot go on as they are. It’s likely that there has never been a time in history where there was more of a basis for such an understanding. We live in societies that are ever more unequal and unsustainable. We live on a planet where the very basis for life is being called into question. It’s hard to imagine a better opportunity to build movements of resistance and social transformation.