Finding Home

By Ellwood, Wayne | New Internationalist, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Finding Home


Ellwood, Wayne, New Internationalist


In the sharp glare of spring sunshine the paint on the simple wooden display case is peeled and fading. It is a modest affair, the top angled in the shape of a roof, as if offering final shelter to the men and women whose names are displayed there. Fresh flowers, a solitary act of commemoration, perhaps atonement, have been placed to the side. Eight sheets of paper are pinned under glass, each sheet filled with the names of homeless people who have died - on the street, under bridges, in ravines and back allies. The Toronto Homeless Memorial sits beside an inner-city church, cheek-by-jowl with one of the city's largest downtown shopping malls.

Not far away is another Toronto. A skyward glance reveals dozens of construction cranes crowding the horizon: 50- and 60-storey towers joust with each other to get the best view of Lake Ontario. The last decade has seen a frenzy of new building in the downtown core, mostly luxury freehold flats (condominiums), a phenomenon not uncommon in other 'hedge cities'.

Across the globe money is pouring into urban centres considered safe harbours for deeppocketed investors. In the Toronto city centre nearly 100,000 condominium units were built between 2012 and 2016. In older residential areas the average selling price of a detached home has soared, leaping by 33 per cent in the past year alone. Meanwhile, 180,000 people are on the waiting list for subsidized housing and the city faces a $2.6 billion repair bill for existing social housing. Buildings too costly to fix are sold: 475 units are on the block this year.

This phenomenon is widespread across the industrialized world. The US has shuttered 10,000 units of federally subsidized housing every year since the 1970s. The right to shelter is recognized by the UN in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more than 40 countries have declared housing a basic human right. Yet, the UN estimates more than 1.6 billion people worldwide lack adequate shelter and more than 100 million are homeless. They flock to temporary shelters or sleep in public buildings like railway stations or bus terminals. Others set up house on the pavement or erect simple houses from salvaged materials on waste land.

In the global South millions living in slums from Mumbai to Sao Paulo have migrated to the city in search of work. The growth of these informal settlements is fuelled by rural poverty and landlessness. They live in precarious housing without tenure; they don't own the land and they lack basic services like water, sewerage and electricity. Their right to shelter often depends on the benevolence of local elites. These poor communities are tolerated or ignored until the price of land jumps and makeshift homes are 'cleared' for development under the guise of 'squatter rehabilitation'.

But homelessness in the South is also a byproduct of top-down economic development. Established slums are bulldozed to make way for international sporting events or glitzy shopping malls. Natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes), climate change, civil war and political conflict also conspire to force people from their homes.

In the West our clichéd view of a homeless person is a single, older man - jobless, uprooted from family, socially isolated, mentally unstable and addicted to alcohol or drugs. And, indeed, many people living on the street do fit this category.

But these visible homeless are the tip of the iceberg. Far more numerous are those who suffer from housing insecurity. An estimated 75 per cent of people who are homeless are not on the street. These hidden homeless, often women, teens and children, sleep in shelters or double up with friends or relatives. Women are most often homeless as a result of violence. One Canadian study found that 71 per cent of women in shelters reported abuse as the reason for seeking refuge.1

It's a similar story for young people, most of whom have either fled or been forced from home because of abuse or neglect. …

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