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Inquest or cover-up? Homelessness inquest not permitted to hear key evidence.

Now, from the school of thought that came up with "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" and "A little dioxin never hurt anyone" comes a new and exciting truism: homelessness (and the death of homeless people) has nothing to do with the availability of housing or with welfare rates. It sounds bizarre, but the argument was advanced forcefully and persistently throughout June and July by the Ontario government.

The occasion was a coroner's inquest into the deaths of Eugene Upper, Irwin Anderson and Mirsalah-Aldin Kompani, three homeless men who froze to death on the streets of Toronto last winter. The inquest was called to allow a coroner's jury to determine how and why they occurred and how similar deaths could be prevented. While many useful recommendations did result from the inquest, they were reached despite a series of practical and legal obstacles erected by the police, the coroner and the crown attorney.

The problems started with a police investigation that was amateurish. Not only did police fail to take photos of the three men around to hostels (because there were "too many of them"), but they ignored key evidence and refused offers of help from advocates for the homeless. In the case of Kompani, a police detective testified that he did not even open a notebook that was found with the body. Another detective later admitted under questioning that, although he had obtained Upper's hospital records, he hadn't bothered to read them.

When the inquest began on June 27, presiding coroner Dr. Murray Naiberg compounded these problems by limiting the standing of the Toronto Coalition Against Homelessness (TCAH), ruling that only six of its two dozen members were eligible as others did not have a "direct and substantial interest." He also restricted the scope of the inquest to the availability of beds in hostels, the availability of beds in detox centres, alcoholism and the homeless, and mental illness and the homeless. A subsequent appeal by a lawyer representing Metro Toronto failed to convince Naiberg to expand the scope of the inquest.

Coroner suppresses evidence, bars witnesses

During the course of the inquest, Naiberg and crown attorney Mary-Ellen Hurman (representing the government) systematically suppressed evidence (much of it offered by witnesses called by the Crown) that inadequate welfare rates and a lack of adequate affordable housing contribute to homelessness and, to a great extent, to the death of the three men. Some of the evidence that was not allowed includes:

* A psychiatric nurse and researcher was prohibited three times from testifying about the links between homelessness and inadequate rates of social assistance, and a lack of affordable or supportive housing;

* The coroner refused to subpoena records that would have shown whether the dead men had been barred from Toronto's largest shelter;

* A shelter worker was prevented from talking about the province's cut in social assistance rates and mentioning the province's cancellation of plans to convert to a longer term non-profit residence;

* A witness was not allowed to tell the jury that Anderson had been recently evicted from his home of five years after withholding a portion of his rent to protest an inoperable stove (an action permissible by law);

* A street worker was barred from describing the affordable housing crisis in Toronto;

* TCAH lawyer Peter Rosenthal was repeatedly barred from asking questions about the lives of the dead men, because (according to Naiberg) "a person's life history is not important to the jury;"

When the Coalition's turn to call witnesses came, it found that fewer than half of its list of 16 witnesses would be allowed. Referring to one of the witnesses whom he did not allow - veteran street worker Beric German - Naiberg stated derisively that he did "not intend to provide...a pulpit to preach the gospel according to St. German."

Among those disallowed were a number of homeless people, experts in toxicology and homelessness, and many who have hands-on knowledge of the problems faced by homeless people. Those that were allowed, such as TCAH activist Cathy Crowe, were limited in what they could talk about (for example they couldn't mention housing - the so-called "h-word" of the inquest - welfare or welfare cuts).

On at least two occasions, jurors complained about the suppression of testimony (they were not even allowed to be made aware of all of the witnesses who they had been prevented from hearing). "Why can't we hear the other side?" asked one.

Their complaint was shared by many observers, including the Toronto Board of Health, which condemned Naiberg's restrictions and sent a strongly worded message to the province's Chief Coroner and the Solicitor General. The coroner and crown attorney justified this continual censorship by arguing that welfare and housing are "not relevant" in the deaths. Given their refusal to let jurors hear testimony about their relevance, this position could well have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In addition to restricting what the jury could hear, Naiberg and Hurman also made a series of attempts to influence the jury's thinking. As early as July 5 (only seven days into the inquest), Naiberg assured jurors that "Irwin Anderson is the author of his own misfortune." Crowe pointed out during the inquest that "there are reasons why people are homeless, reasons that Dr. Naiberg won't let the jury hear. Instead, he wants to blame the dead men, who cannot defend themselves."

Sensible recommendations

Fortunately, most juries have the ability to see the obvious, even if they are prevented from hearing much of the testimony which proved it. When the five-member jury reported on July 30, it presented what TCAH called "a detailed set of practical and sensible recommendations that will go a long way to preventing homeless deaths." Among over nine pages of proposals, the jury called for:

* more money toward affordable and/or supportive housing for the homeless;

* expanded service from both the Street Hotline and Street Patrol;

* a specially trained "mobile crisis unit;"

* more programs for people who are both homeless and alcohol dependent, including a controversial "wet hostel," detox beds and other services;

* more hostels for the homeless and big changes in the way they are run, including the creation of an ombudsperson or advocate; and

* doubling the number of people at the Hostel Outreach Program with expertise in mental health issues.

Metro Toronto Councilor Jack Layton (Chair of Metro's Advisory Committee on Homeless and Socially Isolated Persons) commended the jury for its recommendations. "We need much better systems in place for next winter, as the jury has said. We can expect thousands of additional homeless people to be on the streets as the effects of welfare cuts and lay-offs continue to accelerate the evictions of individuals and families from their homes. Already there are over 3,000 court-imposed evictions per month and there is not enough housing for these people," said Layton.

Pattern of cover-ups?

While seemingly more mundane, questions of the way inquests are run may prove to be equally important to saving lives in Ontario. This isn't the only inquest in which allegations of political interference and possible cover-up have been made; during the inquest the Toronto Star reported allegations that officials had attempted to limit the scope of an inquest into a suicide at a Toronto jail. Possible susceptibility to interference is just one reason that TCAH activist Michael Shapcott argues that coroners who are going to conduct inquests need legal training.

Despite expressions of support from the City and Metro, little action is expected from the federal government, which has completely washed its hands of responsibility for housing and welfare, or from the provincial government, which treats cost-cutting as if it were a religious mission.

As former Toronto mayor John Sewell pointed out in Now Magazine, "this problem isn't really about money. Trying to service people on the street is expensive - much more so than providing housing, even with the costs of providing personal support thrown in." Not servicing them at all - the apparent Tory "solution" - has an even greater cost, a cost that, as the weather again grows colder, will be measured in human lives.

Scott Piatkowski is a writer and activist living in Waterloo, Ontario. He thanks the Toronto Coalition Against Homelessness for providing background material and for their tireless efforts on this issue.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
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Author:Piatkowski, Scott
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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