Homelessness activists to stage hunger strike on the steps of City Hall

Exterior of London, Ontario's city hall. CREDIT: DEE-DEE SAMUELS
Starting Aug. 2, The Forgotten 519 will begin staging a hunger strike on the steps of London City Hall.

At 9 a.m. on Aug. 2, a collective of frontline workers and community advocates who call themselves The Forgotten 519 will be staging a hunger strike outside London City Hall, as a protest for the lack of support and aid for Londoners experiencing homelessness and dying “preventable deaths.”

The Forgotten 519 are a multidisciplinary coalition of people that include outreach workers, medical professionals, and advocates with hundreds of years’ experience between them, who serve and advocate on behalf of those experiencing homelessness. They are also people with lived experiences of homelessness, impoverishment, and oppression.

Earlier this week, the group threatened the hunger strike unless the city met their list of demands in one week’s time. The demands put forward by The Forgotten 519 are as follows:

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  1. Immediate cessation of any removal of encampments, tents, campsites, or squats in City Parks, along the Thames Valley Parkway, and in empty city lots, or lots that have been left to fall into disrepair by the property owners.
  2. Immediate transition of the City of London’s Coordinated Informed Response (CIR) Team from a displacement model, to a team that offers meaningful support (based on the self-identified needs of the campers) to campers at their campsites.
  3. Immediate creation of two indoor spaces (one in the core, one in the east end) that provide 24/7 support to people who are deprived of housing and shelter, or who simply need a safe place to be.
The City held a talk with advocates on Tuesday, which ultimately fell apart, prompting organizers to move ahead with the strike.

“The City shares the concerns The Forgotten 519 have expressed for London’s most vulnerable and also share in the sense of urgency to create solutions,” read an official statement from the City of London. “We are concerned about the actions they are demanding.”

Leticia Mizon, a frontline worker from The Ontario Network of People Who Use Drugs with over 20 years’ experience and a member of the coalition, believes the drastic steps put forward group are needed to save the lives of both unhoused community members and the frontline workers.

“The shelter staff, the addictions counsellor, the mental health crisis, harm reduction, [and] support workers… have all said, ‘We don’t have enough in our city to support people to get to the next step to be well or even survive,’” Mizon said.

The city of London said it understands the complexity of the situation.

“We know that the people who are experiencing homelessness, struggling with addictions and mental health issues are best served when the work is done collaboratively,” the City said. “The City’s focus has been, and will continue to be, on solutions that move individuals towards housing, and we have made progress on that front.”

But for Mizon and The Forgotten 519, it hasn’t been enough.

“We put our lives on the line every day,” Mizon said. “If it takes somebody to starve on the steps of City Hall for government officials to listen to 193 frontline workers, then that’s what it’s going to take.”

It’s a complex situation that has reached a tipping point. The city remains steadfast in their belief that steps are being taken to improve the state of homelessness in London. According to the City, there has been change and action taken to address the lack of support for the vulnerable citizens of London, but Mizon pointed to the growing number of preventable deaths as cause for alarm.

“They are…ignoring 167 deaths over the last three years and removing people from any sense of stability and safety that they may have, whether that be individual, or in groups,” she said.

At Tuesday’s talks, Mizon said, little progress was made.

“During the initial meeting, we played a one-minute alarm to signal 167 deaths. We didn’t get to 167, but every minute an alarm went off to remind the City that this is an immediate, urgent issue. We minced words and there was no progress.”

The City, Mizon believes, made a monumental error in reducing The Forgotten 519 to a fringe organization.

 “They alluded to the fact that we are not working in a collaborative or collective manner…you ignore the voices of almost 200 frontline workers who are working in the population.”

The City maintained that collaboration is their main goal in addressing the situation.

“We are committed to working together to address these issues and to explore new solutions collectively and collaboratively,” it said.

A petition to support the movement can be found here.