Advocates say cordoning, removing benches at Union Station displaces homeless population

Those experiencing homelessness have been borrowing the public space for warmth and shelter during the winter months
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TORONTO — Since February 8, Union Station has cordoned off and even removed its benches to promote physical distancing; however, advocates have deemed this move an attack on those experiencing homelessness.

“We are all “in this together”: unless you’re poor, homeless, differently-abled,” Lorraine Lam of Sanctuary Toronto wrote in a Twitter thread that documents the seating closure in a series of images. 

“I can’t help but wonder about the money spent to pay the many security guards whose job is to kick people out of the station and to tape the chairs up,” she wrote. “Imagine if those funds were rent subsidies.”

Benches flipped and tapped off at Union Station (PHOTO: Courtesy of Lorraine Lam on Twitter)

A spokesperson from the City of Toronto told blogTO that the station removed benches in response to the lockdown and that some seating is still available in the VIA and York Concourse to accommodate essential travel.

“Seating has been reduced in these areas to ensure physical distancing. Once public health guidelines are loosened, some seating will be reinstated depending on the stage of recovery.”

Lam told blogTO that the homeless population have sought refuge from the inclement winter weather at Union, borrowing Canada’s largest train station for warmth, electricity, and shelter while still being able to keep a safe distance apart.

In early February, Sanctuary staff members were performing late-night outreach work at the station when they realized seating had been flipped over and tapped off. The following week, Lam saw Union Station’s staff members stacking benches into corners of the building.

All the station’s seating has been barricaded since.

“When the city continues to remove these options for people, what do you expect people to do?” Lam said to blogTO. “It sends a message of displacement and that you’re not welcome here.” 

Lam and other advocates believe this decision betrays the city’s discrimination against the homeless population as public spaces have been used for big events but the same cannot be done for individuals who require the same space for survival.

“Shelters are full, warming centres don’t open above -15 degrees, the wait for affordable housing is 15 years for a single person,” she tweeted. “Retail & offices sit vacant and unused, but people are told: you can live outside but not with a tent or a structure.”

A study on the relationship between COVID-19 and Ontario’s homeless population found that those experiencing homelessness are five times more likely to die within 21 days of a positive COVID-19 test, CBC News reported

Those who recently became homeless are also 20 times more likely to be hospitalized for the virus and 10 times more likely to require intensive care, according to the study conducted by the Lawson Research Institute and Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES).  

The City of Toronto has converted the Novotel Toronto Centre hotel into a temporary shelter to house those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The facility was and will be operated by housing agency Homes First Society.

The shelter opened on February 22, offering meal provisions and 12 staff members on site 24/7.

Last December, different industry professionals, including artists, authors, and academics, signed open letters to the city demanding an end to encampment evictions, in solidarity with the homeless population setting up camps in Toronto parks.

Wiki Production Code: A0650

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