Safety on public transit has become a serious concern for Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) users and a microcosm of the broader ways our governments and systems are failing. In late January 2023, after several highly publicized incidents of violence on Toronto’s transit system, former Mayor John Tory unilaterally announced the deployment of 80 overtime police officers on the TTC. The public later learned that this cost $1.7 million per month – 2.5 times the cost of opening one 24/7 warming centre for the same amount of time. TTC CEO Rick Leary was later authorized to spend up to $15 million on emergency measures without city council’s oversight, including increased enforcement and private security guards.
Media conversations around violence on the TTC have focused largely on unhoused people, unfairly scapegoating them as perpetrators of violence. Now candidates have taken that narrative further during the Toronto mayoral by-election campaign. Former Toronto Sun columnist Anthony Furey has blamed drug users for TTC violence and proposes “involuntary treatment” (a harmful and ineffective approach) and having police patrol the TTC. Former Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders proposes more TTC special constables and a heavy-handed enforcement approach that would prohibit loitering, panhandling, sleeping on the TTC, and increased penalties for “disorderly conduct.”
Shelters, not scapegoats
A recent TTC staff report debunked the idea that unhoused people are responsible for violence on the TTC. The reality is that unhoused people are more likely to be victims of violence. In a city where shelters are at 99 percent capacity and encampments continue to be brutally evicted, it is not surprising that people are sheltering on the TTC. Unhoused people also use the TTC, like everyone else, to get from point A to point B and have the right to do so without harassment or police violence.
The rhetoric we have seen divides people into “good” and “bad” transit users. It builds an ideological basis and justification for violence against unhoused people and has deadly consequences. We saw this in New York City, where their Mayor and the governor refused to condemn and even attempted to excuse the vigilante murder of Jordan Neely on transit as a reasonable response to his experiencing a mental health crisis.
We should all be concerned with the precarity and lack of safety in a city where rents have skyrocketed to a point where so many people are only one missed paycheque away from being out on the street and facing full shelters. It is convenient for our city’s politicians if we are more scared of seeing homeless people than becoming homeless ourselves, because it is easier to hire more police officers and criminalize homeless people than to address the systemic housing crisis in our city.
No “solutions” without housing
Police on TTC won’t prevent violence – supports preventing social isolation and poverty prevent violence – but they will make some transit users less safe. The TTC’s own data shows that Black and Indigenous riders are “grossly overrepresented” in TTC enforcement. The Toronto Ombudsman has investigated violent incidents from TTC enforcement at least four times over the past decade and found what communities already know: that racialized riders, unhoused riders and riders experiencing mental health crises are more likely to be hurt or killed with the presence of enforcement staff.
Fatima from the Encampment Support Network Parkdale has worked with many people who have found themselves with no better option than sleeping on transit as a last resort. Fatima tells the story of one woman, A.P. A blaring fire drill alarm caused A.P. to experience a PTSD episode that kept her in her room and prevented her from participating in the drill; for this, she was kicked out of the women’s shelter that she lived in. After being moved to and from multiple shelters that could not accommodate her service animal, she was transferred back to the original shelter that had evicted her. She is now staying in parks and on the TTC, getting on the train from Kennedy to Kipling and sleeping in whatever moments she can get. She’s tried calling central intake to get back to a shelter bed, but there are simply no shelter beds available that can accommodate her.
Mayoral candidates who are more progressive than Saunders and Furey have proposed hiring staff to offer supports on the TTC. But for any mental health or housing-oriented services on the TTC to be effective, they must first have safe and suitable shelter spots to offer. Any plan that does not include a robust investment in increasing shelter bed availability, growing subsidized housing, and enacting a moratorium on encampment evictions will not address the issue. They will only criminalize unhoused people while momentarily shuffling them out of sight. As Fatima puts it: “First we deny them access to safe shelter, then we deny them the humanity to be seen in public spaces.”
In June 2023 the TTC announced their new “Move Along” policy to corral unhoused people sheltering on transit to Union Station to connect to Streets to Homes workers and pushed to accept any referrals under the threat of removal by TTC Special Constables or arrest. The question remains: “Move Along” to where? In 2022 only 18 out of 138 Streets to Homes service referrals on transit resulted in long-term housing solutions.
The working class fight for community safety
Statistically, the TTC is very safe, despite sensational media reporting. At the same time, many transit riders we speak to across Toronto do not feel safe. We must take this deeply-felt issue seriously by proposing real solutions based on care and evidence and engaging our memberships in political education about why police are not the answer.
That’s why Toronto organizations have come together to challenge mayoral candidates to “connect the dots” and invest in the TTC, non-police responses to crisis and violence, and in suitable shelter and affordable housing, so that no one is forced to shelter on transit. Our next step is to host a mayoral election forum on Tuesday, June 20 to debate candidates’ plans and how we can build a safer city for all: www.ttcriders.ca/riders_decide
Featured photograph by Alejandro Rojas.
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