The Toronto Homeless Memorial was first conceived of in 1997 and was inspired by the War Memorial at Toronto’s Old City Hall. Bonnie Briggs was at a memorial service for an individual who was homeless and saw the War Memorial with the names of fallen soldiers on it and thought, ”If the war dead have a memorial, why can’t the homeless have one?” So, she bounced the idea off her husband and a few of the groups she belonged to at the time, and they all said that it was a great idea. A committee was formed and she got to work. Bonnie was attending George Brown College at the time for their Community Worker Program and arranged to have her work on the homeless memorial be one of her two student placements.
“We held weekly meetings at the school and enlisted the help of two artist/architects and started creating designs and visiting possible sites. We also met with the City and gained the support of several city councillors. Several sites were suggested and rejected by the city, including Nathan Phillips Square and Saint James Park. Finally, the committee decided to create a homeless memorial website and put it up on the web.”
From its inception, the memorial was created to remember the people who have died homeless, to make sure that these people did not die nameless. Bonnie sums up the purpose of the Toronto Homeless Memorial. “I wanted society to realize that these are real people and deserving of the same respect we give our loved ones when they die. I also hoped that the ever increasing list of names would act as an incentive to work for change and an end to homelessness.”
In 2001 The Church of the Holy Trinity and the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) established a more formal partnership. This was initiated in response to an increase in the number of people dying without housing in Toronto. The first monthly vigil was held at the Church of the Holy Trinity in March, 2001, with the encouragement of the Rev. Sara Boyles, then Incumbent. Tanya Gulliver, the Social Justice Worker at Church of the Holy Trinity, Bonnie Briggs, Cathy Crowe, Michael Shapcott and a number of other members of the Church of the Holy Trinity provided leadership. For years, Dan and Alice Heap were regularly part of the memorial. From its inception, the Toronto Homeless Memorial has worked to include those without housing in its leadership as well as in the monthly vigils.
In 2009, the TDRC handed off the leadership of the Toronto Homeless Memorial to a group of community volunteers. The new group changed the name to Toronto Homeless Memorial Network to better reflect its new make-up. Greg Cook of Sanctuary, the Rev. Sherman Hesselgrave of Holy Trinity, Bonnie Briggs, Janice Towndrowe, Vivian Harrower, Niloufar A., Cathy Crowe and Michael Shapcott have continued to provide support and direction. A team of faithful volunteers headed by Jim and Merylie Houston and including Ian and Fran Sowton and Maggie Panter prepares and serves a meal to all who want to share in it after the memorial. Many others have also offered support over the years as the Toronto Homeless Memorial Network holds monthly vigils, keeps track of the deaths of those who don’t have housing, participates in protests at City Hall and lobbies the government to address this crisis. The Toronto Homeless Memorial Network has helped ensure the following milestones.
- March 9, 2016 the Toronto Homeless Memorial Partnership partnered with Rebecca Houston who produced the installation, Stone and Glass: We are all transient. It was part of the ongoing Myseum Intersections Project.
- November 2016 the Provincial Coroner agreed to do an inquest in the deaths of Brad Chapman and Grant Faulkner
- January 2017 the City of Toronto started to keep track of Homeless Deaths in Toronto
How we define a Homeless Death
If someone dies while homeless they will be included in the Online Homeless Memorial, regardless of the reasons for their death. If someone has been homeless in the recent past and their death is associated with their homelessness, they will also be included.
The Online Homeless Memorial includes people who died while they were:
- on the street
- staying in a shelter (all types including both emergency and temporary shelters, such as Out of the Cold or overnight 24hour drop-ins, or warming/cooling centres)
- in custody (i.e. confined to jail) with no fixed address in the community
- in hospital including general, psychiatric, and long-term care or palliative care/hospice (with no fixed address in the community)
- transitory and short-term accommodations (i.e. couch-surfing, staying with friends, hotel, or motel, but otherwise no fixed address)
- living in unsafe and/or inadequate accommodation (i.e. squats, outdoor shelters)
- on their home reserve (for Indigenous people) if they went there with the knowledge they were ill