‘Not in our name’: Homelessness advocacy group launches hunger strike at London City Hall

Dan Oudshoorn sits inside a tent near City Hall. Andrew Graham / Global News

#TheForgotten519 organizing committee member Dan Oudshoorn announced on the steps of London, Ont., city hall Tuesday morning that he will be taking on a hunger strike for the homelessness advocacy group.

“Today I begin my hunger strike,” Oudshoorn opened in his statement outside city hall Tuesday. “For the duration I will only drink water, with electrolyte drops added and contains medication with no nutritional value as prescribed to me by a physician. I will not break my strike until the other organizing committee members of #TheForgotten519 are satisfied that life-saving changes we have demanded have been implemented.”

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Read more: Hunger strike still on after unsuccessful meeting with city, London advocacy group says

The declaration comes as the group, composed of a coalition of front-line workers, gathered in the city’s downtown to address the local homelessness community after a meeting with city officials ended without resolution early last week.

#TheForgotten519 later gave the city one week to implement three demands aimed at improving conditions for the vulnerable or offering “acceptable alternatives.”

The group had demanded that the city:

  • Halt the removal of encampments, tents, campsites or squats in parks, along the Thames Valley Parkway, and in empty city lots.
  • Change the role of the city’s Coordinated Informed Response (CIR) team “from a displacement model, to a team that offers meaningful support … to campers at their campsites.”
  • Create two indoor spaces providing round-the-clock, seven-day support to those deprived of housing and shelter or in need of a safe place.

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“This is our city,” opened Jenna Rose Sands, #TheForgotten519 organizing committee member and the director of SafeSpace London. “Join me in saying, ‘Not in our name.’ This is not going to continue in our city anymore. We need to do better. These folks up here (pointing to London City Hall) need to do absolutely better.”

“These are not radical demands,” organizers concluded.

Oudshoorn highlighted the “trepidation” he feels going into the hunger strike.

“As long as they (city officials) can spin things in the media to make it look like those deaths are inevitable, like they’re doing the absolute very best that anyone can in a complex situation, or that homeless deaths somehow matter less than other deaths, then they are content to abandon people to die.

“I have no doubt that the city will try to preserve my willingness to put my life on the line in the same way,” he continued. “They will allow me to suffer, they will try to wait me out, and they will try to convince my fellow Londoners not to care if I suffer and die.

“This is why the city will fail: Londoners care about other people,” Oudshoorn concluded.

Additionally, last week, the London Homeless Coalition (LHC) Death Communication Protocol shared a recorded 27 deaths since January of “individuals who were deprived of housing or who were housed with a history of homelessness.”

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This was the first time LHC shared that information with the public.

Oudshoorn pointed out that over the past three years, there have been 167 deaths within London’s unhoused population.

“We felt it was necessary to take a different course of action to prevent these deaths,” Oudshroon said. “I think the city is aware that they can’t just try to use some of the standard tactics to make us go away and make the people forget about what’s going on.”

Read more: London, Ont. homeless advocacy group maintains call for hunger strike on Tuesday

In a statement from city officials prior to the hunger strike on Tuesday morning, staff said that the city has “extended an invitation” for the #TheForgotten519 group amongst other agencies looking to address the “shared concerns and calls for action to better serve London’s most vulnerable people.”

Below is the complete statement from the City of London:

We have great respect for the attention they have brought to the desperate need to better support people living in our community who are experiencing homelessness, addictions, and living with episodic mental health challenges. One preventable death is one too many,” said Kevin Dickins, Deputy City Manager, Social and Health Development. “It’s clear the community is unified in their support for a better system. Changes made and actions taken with system-wide support and participation are our best chance to make a difference, today and in the long-term.”

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The City is calling for agencies to come together to participate in two working sessions that will be facilitated by a third party, beginning this week. The focus for the first session will be on creating space to broadly share and listen to the experiences of those providing service in the community that has been gathered by #TheForgotten519 and discuss the ideas for immediate action.

“The actions of this coalition have shone the spotlight on systemic problems. We are not working against agencies who are responding to and supporting vulnerable people. We work with them,” Dickins said. “Our hope is that gathering with our community agencies and frontline workers will allow us to agree on what we can do right now to move to better health, social and housing outcomes – as a municipality, as a system and as a community.”

Early last week, the coalition representing frontline workers brought forward demands to the City that included allowing any and all encampments on public and private property to exist throughout London and changing the model for the Coordinated Informed Response (CIR) team to an outreach and support model, not displacement.

The City’s current approach to encampments is to allow them to exist on public property. Only when there are imminent risks to health and safety – for the individuals or to the surrounding areas – has there been action taken. Reasons that encampments have been displaced have included being located on a flood plain and on a sidewalk, multiple fires, violence, criminality, or a direct and acute interference with community activities. For the most part, encampments have been allowed to exist on public property throughout London, noting the City has no ability to direct what happens regarding encampments on private property.

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“We approach each encampment on a case-by-case basis, and we lead with compassion and care for the people we meet,” said Dickins. “We are not perfect, though. We are committed to doing better to provide support and resources to the people who are living in encampments. That includes hearing from the whole of the system about what more needs to happen, and what a different approach would include.

“We can talk about encampments and displacements and the number of encampments, but the real problem is that we have encampments at all,” Dickins said. “A growing number of Londoners have no other option than to establish their homes under tarps and cardboard boxes in hidden corners throughout our community. There are just not enough places with supports for people to go and that should concern all of us.”

In addition to calling for the immediate gathering, Dickins said that City staff will be looking internally to identify additional ways to support the system, including access to funding, and focused and targeted advocacy with other levels of government. London, like many communities across Canada, is facing a crisis because of complex health, social, and economic issues; solutions require responses and actions from across multiple disciplines, including at the Provincial and Federal government levels.

“The actions of #TheForgotten519 have given voice to the concerns of frontline workers and raised awareness about the critical need to do more for vulnerable people in our community. They have also underlined the urgency,” Dickins said. “Responding to these issues requires commitment to action from across the system and we look forward to working with the whole of the system, together, through this week.”

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Memorial crosses sit just outside London, Ont., city hall, where members of #TheForgotten519 launched a hunger strike on Tuesday, Aug. 2. Andrew Graham/980 CFPL

— with files from Global News’ Andrew Graham and Sawyer Bogdan

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