• Manina Murphy

"Safe and Welcoming Spaces" - Is this what it looks like?


This image blew up on Twitter about a month ago. It's Toronto's new 100-bed shelter in the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place which is part of the City of Toronto's 2020/21 winter services plan. Their October 6th news release describes this as a 24-hour respite site.

"To ensure safe and welcoming places for people who need them during the coming winter weather."

Where do I even start? There is a major disconnect between these descriptors and the reality of this space.


There is very little in this space that supports the human beings "living" here. After the many years of government efforts and money spent to find solutions to our homelessness issues, surely we could do better than this.


I could rant about the epic fail on the part of government, the lack of public outrage and the deeply ingrained stigma that continues to oppress this population - but I won't. Instead, I will focus on what I know is one crucial and underutilized tool in the complex, multi-pronged solutions towards a path of healing.


SAFETY - one of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. But safety is more than just shelter from the elements. For those experiencing homelessness, trauma, past and present, is just one of the complex issues that need attention. The number 1 place to start is to provide physical and psychological safety. This can not be achieved in a space such as the one in this image. This is just one of the reasons why many people choose to sleep on the streets rather than what they believe to be of greater danger.


AUTONOMY - In this type of setting not only is there no opportunity for autonomy, it in fact completely stripes away all sense of agency. Try to imagine everything in your life spinning out of control and having no ability to regain even the smallest control over your immediate surroundings.


The very sad truth is that these environments continue to traumatize our most vulnerable humans. By not responding to the very reasons that brought them here, by forcing them into places that retraumatize them on a daily basis, we are sending a loud and painful message.


These and other basic human needs cannot be met in our current approach to homelessness. Environments that support these needs are integral to recovery from complex issues. Trauma-informed design must be part of our collective efforts. Well established research shows that providing human-centric, supportive, healing and restorative environments will yield improved outcomes.


How can we expect our vulnerable communities to heal when we continue to reinforce their lack of worth by warehousing them in these oppressive environments? Would we send cancer patients here for treatment?


There are many opportunities right now for us to do better. Shelter them with Dignity. If we harness the power of a unified effort, WE CAN do the right thing. WE CAN fix this. You with me? #shelterthemwithdignity #tikkunolam