People facing homelessness aren't only dealing with the challenge of where to sleep, shower and eat every single day. They also face harmful assumptions that can alienate them from their communities — something a new campaign by the City of Toronto and Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness is hoping to address.
"I support homeless shelters," reads one ad. "That are far, far away from where I live," it adds.
"Which Toronto do we want to be?" the Toronto For All campaign asks viewers.
The campaign comes as Toronto expands its emergency shelter system. Four new shelters are being planned in advance of the demolition of Seaton House, the largest men's shelter in downtown.
The majority of Toronto's shelters are located in the downtown core, but a recent report commissioned by the city suggests Toronto would be better served by smaller shelters in communities that can be integrated with support services.
"If there is friction between the outwardly expressed statement 'of course we need shelters for homeless men' and an inwardly held belief, 'just not anywhere near my house,' then we need to challenge ourselves — or find the tools we need to challenge others," said Kira Heineck, the executive director of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness, in a statement.
A man tries to stay warm near a steam vent in downtown Toronto. (Photo: Todd Korol/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The campaign's website also challenges myths. One such myth is: "Homeless men are all criminals, drug addicts, pedophiles and sex-offenders. No one is safe around them."
In fact, residents at Seaton House include three singers who fled their homes in Africa, because their protest songs supported women's rights, and a former city employee who developed mobility issues and used alcohol to self-medicate his depression.
Toronto's shelters are currently overcrowded. About 5,250 people sleep outside and in emergency shelters, according to a 2013 assessment from the city, and shelter use is on the rise. More than 180,000 people are on the waiting list for a "rent-geared to income unit;" the average wait for a two-bedroom apartment is eight-and-a-half years.
"If there is friction between the outwardly expressed statement 'of course we need shelters for homeless men' and an inwardly held belief, 'just not anywhere near my house,' then we need to challenge ourselves — or find the tools we need to challenge others."
A November opinion poll by Forum Research found that two-thirds of Toronto voters say the city's homelessness is "severe," and one quarter say it is "very severe," and a majority (52 per cent) approve of building 15 new shelters in the city. However, 32 per cent wouldn't support a shelter in their own neighbourhood.
Those who oppose a shelter in their neigbhourhood said it wouldn't be safe (37 per cent), or it "wouldn't fit in the neighbourhood" (19 per cent) and would lower property values (18 per cent) — all things the Toronto For All site lists as myths.
When a shelter was described as one for women and children, support for building the shelter doubled. But according to Toronto For All, 85 per cent of those experiencing outdoor homelessness are men, as are 68 per cent of those in the shelter system.
The poll was conducted by a telephone survey of 1,086 randomly selected Toronto voters. The data, which is considered accurate to +/- 3%, 19 times out of 20, was statistically weighted according to census data.