Homeless Inquest (Cover-up?) The Jury Is Out

Its been a few days since I last posted on the subject of the inquest into the freezing deaths of three homeless men that has been taking place in Toronto for the past month. In part this is because a disc failure had the Toronto Free-Net offline for two days. The other reason is that I've felt incapable of writing about it... 

On Tuesday this week the first witness of the day was Dr. Tyrone Turner, psychiatrist-in-chief at Toronto's Doctors Hospital. I wasn't actually present for Dr. Turner's testimony, but I will say that he is one of the very few shrinks who is sensitive to the experiences of homeless people - he is willing to say that the experience of being homeless affects one's mental health far more under these circumstances than any preexisting "mental illness." Dr. Turner was expected to testify on the subject of discharge planning - which is supposed to make appropriate living arrangements for persons leaving a psych. facility, but in truth is usually sadly lacking.

I arrived in time for most of the testimony offered by Toronto Coalition Against Homelessness member Cathy Crowe. Cathy is a nurse with a community health service in Toronto who has worked among Toronto's homeless community for many years. She painted a compelling and sometimes horrifying picture of the neglect faced by the homeless population, the health issues faced by street people, and perhaps more importantly, the reasons for many of these issues. I won't go into details here, as some of this information is extremely disturbing. but suffice to say that when people are exposed to the weather for extended periods; are forced to walk long distances each day in order to meet basic needs, and face inadequate nutrition and sleep for extended periods, the results are inevitable. Also a factor is that many homeless are suspicious of the healthcare system... either because of earlier ill-treatment, or simply that they are reluctant to bother others with their problems. Canada may have "Socialized" healthcare... but to access many services requires a piece of identification issued by the Province. And for many homeless persons, obtaining or hanging onto I.D. poses a serious problem. Either these items cost money to obtain, or they wind up being stolen. 

The final witness, and the sole person called to testify by Metro Toronto, was Director of Metro hostel services John Jagt. (Pronounced like the boat.) This guy is a career bureaucrat, and his testimony certainly reflected this. He was on the stand for the rest of that afternoon, and most of Wednesday morning. Loads of tedious stats, and occasional details regarding plans to renovate Seaton House and other shelters. (Seaton House is the largest men's shelter in Canada.) 

Altogether, the coroner disallowed a total of as many as eight witnesses that the Toronto Coalition Against Homelessness wished to have testify, including at least four homeless persons. (Dr. Turner was originally to be one of these, but the coroner later rescinded this decision.) Others, including Ms. Crowe, had severe restrictions placed on what they would be allowed to say from the stand. 

Most of Wed. afternoon saw the attorneys meeting to try and find common recommendations to present to the jury, eventually agreeing on more than twenty-five mainly related to delivery of services to homeless people. the most significant of these was a recommendation for more supportive housing. 

TCAH attorney Peter Rosenthal was the first to present closing remarks to the jury beginning at about 5:30 PM on Wednesday afternoon. TCAH made a total of thirty-seven recommendations to the jury. I have transcribed the first two as they really say it all. 

1. All levels of government should recognize the severity of the crisis of homelessness in Toronto. Hostels should be used only for temporary shelter. Permanent housing should be provided for homeless people. 

2. Adequate, affordable housing is a basic human right, and a fundamental necessity. The City of Toronto, where the three homeless men died, should immediately convene a meeting with representatives from all levels of government, private and non-profit landlords and housing developers, community organizations, tenants and homeless people. The goal should be to identify successful models of affordable and supportive housing develop a plan of action to ensure that the housing and support needs of homeless people are met. 

Other recommendations from the Coalition included changing service delivery to make it more culturally sensitive by involving other cultural groups, psychiatric survivors, homeless/formerly homeless persons and others in service development and delivery. Also recommended was revision of standards for hostels, (and specifically Seaton House) supports and advocacy for refugees, to demand that the Provincial rescind the cutbacks to Welfare and end the $2 dispensing fee for prescription drugs, more resources for emergency outreach services such as Anishnawbe Health/Street Patrol, and more funds for community programs. 

Mr. Rosenthal made one of the most heartfelt presentations I have ever seen from a lawyer, urging the jury not to forget that the three deceased men were human beings deserving honor and respect regardless of their circumstances, and told them they were in a position to write an epitaph for these three. At one point, in a very uncommon move, the coroner interrupted, dismissed the jurors, and proceeded to condemn Mr. Rosenthal for allegedly referring to what he termed "inadmissable evidence" in the course of his summary. It is very rare for a closing summary to be interrupted in this fashion... but so typical of this coroner's behavior. 

Thursday's proceedings ended at one in the afternoon following brief closing remarks from Metro Toronto's counsel, who added essentially nothing to the proceedings. 

The Crown Attorney made her summary this morning... and it was outrageous to say the least. She spent two hours systematically trying to undermine the recommendations made by the Coalition... and attacked Mr. Rosenthal personally in the process. She was finally forced to apologize for some of these comments, but the damage was done. Of five recommendations she made, two stand out for sheer mean-spiritedness... one was to extend the waiting period for re-admission for someone who voluntarily leaves a detox centre, and the other was to tighten up on so-called "double-dipping" - people who are able to draw Welfare/ FBA while staying in a shelter. Most people on social assistance are often either turned away from the hostels, or forced to surrender most of their income for room and board, leaving them only the equivalent of the Special Needs Allowance... a $26.00/week stipend paid to shelter residents who are ineligible for Welfare. 

The charge to the jury was essentially a legal briefing delivered by the presiding Coroner. He outlined what was expected of the jurors, and also what fell outside of their responsibilities. They are required to answer five questions regarding the deceased - the person's name, the time and location of death (Specifically, where death was pronounced, rather than where it occurred), the cause of death, and the circumstances (natural causes, accidental, suicide, homicide, undetermined) 

One thing that was apparent throughout was the efforts to limit the scope of this proceeding in such a way that the relevant issues of housing and income were suppressed throughout. Equally obvious was that suppressing these particular truths was impossible... the issues were raised again and again. Some floods simply cannot be dammed - they sweep everything before themselves. Another death occurred in the course of this inquest... a man's body was discovered in a west-end park on Monday last week - it was 85 degrees F. at the time. No season is truly safe. Just last night, a fight between two groups of homeless youth left two seriously injured... desperate people do desperate things. the dispute apparently involved young people who wash the windshields of passing cars in exchange for cash handouts - the only income source for an increasing number of homeless youth. Persons under eighteen are no longer eligible for Welfare in Ontario - and there no jobs to be had. Little wonder people get extremely territorial. And many of these young people are fleeing abusive situations to begin with.

Well, it appears that I've strayed from what I set out to write about... although maybe not as much as I first thought. The three women and two men of this jury have an enormous responsibility on their hands. I hope they do what's right... the coroner was determined to make sure they weren't equipped to do so.