If you’re in this “sector” as some would call it, or have watched the news lately, you may have seen a lot of talk about Toronto’s shelter system and how it has collapsed. Having worked for one of the finest (in my opinion) shelter’s in the city myself, and having a husband who works for the same one, I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling in my head, heart, and gut about the language being used in the media to portray shelters.
I wholeheartedly agree that the shelter system is not perfect. There is a serious lack of resources, money, compassionately trained staff in some spaces, and beds enough for the large need that exists that leaves many unhoused people sleeping outside in these horrific temperatures. This is all also part of a larger conversation that requires room to talk about how shelters are only supposed to be temporary, and that an important piece of the puzzle is more housing that would be affordable for more people. Anyways. I am not going to sit here and pretend to be an expert on the subject.
I am however an expert on my own feelings. There is sadness, grief, confusion, and anger that arises in me when I hear the language being used around shelters, when it is in fact the city, politicians, and leaders that need to hear a lot of the conversations that are happening, which are very much important. I hear “the shelter system has collapsed”, followed by conversations around lack of affordable housing. I hear “shelters are in constant outbreak”, followed by conversations about lack of masks and testing being done by the city. I hear “there are not enough beds”, followed by conversations about how there needs to be more housing, NOW.
I agree, there is a lack of affordable housing. There is a lack of safety resources to keep unhoused people safe, let alone the rest of society including kids. There is a need for more beds and housing now. However, there are also a lot of real people working behind the “collapsing” shelter system that are working really damn hard in these systems that are lacking big time, and are making a really big difference.
I may be biased, but my husband Ian is one of those real shelter workers working so hard every day, along with his amazing staff team – and he’s pretty great. Ian cares so deeply for every resident, and has worked at Gateway men’s shelter for 10 years in a variety of roles. Through the Pandemic and beyond, he has been put at risk in a variety of situations. He has worked really long hours like a lot of drop-in staff, been triggered for different reasons, has worked alone to check on people being housed, and now works directly with the city to build compassionate relationships with unhoused people outside in order to work towards housing. He is amazing at his job.
To broadly say that the system has collapsed and point fingers at shelters fully dismisses the hard work, risk, fatigue, grief, and burnout many shelter workers are facing trying to work within a system that is struggling. This system surrounds them and contains much bigger issues that a single shelter or worker can fix on their own.
Advocates have important jobs. It is because of advocacy work that big change happens over time. And the divisive language that I feel, and my colleagues feel, being so closely connected to the shelter system is harmful and disappointing. I wish there could be a third way. One that is filled with grace, love, hope, and connection. Not one that talks down to people when it is the system that really needs a shake up.
These are the things on my heart. I hope that even if you disagree that we can come together and have conversations built on love. Because in the end, this is why I was called to this work. Through and from love.
I am a community worker at The Dale Ministries in Parkdale. In order to do this work, I must fundraise my own salary. This is only possible through financial gifts from supporters like you. You can visit https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/the-dale-ministries/ to give to my work here, indicating that the donation is for me. With much thanks!