Every year, as the holiday season approaches, a group of low-income tenants and housing advocates gather to remember the ten people who died in the Rupert Hotel rooming house fire, and to re-commit themselves to the campaign for safe and affordable homes for all.
This year’s Rupert memorial will be held on Thursday, December 13, at 11 a.m. at the site of the former Rupert hotel at Queen and Parliament Streets in the east end of downtown Toronto. Everyone is welcome to attend this short memorial.
In 1989, when the fire roared through the Rupert, I was a community worker at the Toronto Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park. Earlier that year, I had taken the then-Minister of Housing for Ontario, Chaviva Hosek, on a community tour that included a visit to the Rupert. It was a neglected rooming house that provided meagre shelter for about four dozen men and a few women in conditions that were appalling, inhumane and substandard.
Just one snapshot of life in the Rupert: The heating was frequently non-existent, so tenants routinely started small fires in wastepaper baskets to keep warm!On December 23 of 1989, in the late afternoon (the Saturday before Christmas), both the main and the secondary fire alarms were not working in the building; a fire escape on the second floor had been converted (without permission) into a rented room; and all the fire extinguishers had been removed by the landlord. The century-old three-storey wooden structure was a tragedy waiting to happen.
The fire started on the second floor. The residents of the Rupert rooming house, like people throughout Toronto, were settling into a Saturday evening before Christmas. The fire spread quickly. Even worse was the smoke, which quickly filled the building. The forensic toxicologist who testified at the Rupert inquest several years later said that virtually all of the ten who died never had a chance. All it took was one breath of the lethal smoke to kill them.
With no fire alarm to give them a precious minute or two of warning, no proper fire separations to prevent the spread of smoke and flames, and blocked fire exits, those who died never had a chance.
In the days after the Rupert fire, a community coalition was formed that included rooming house residents, homeless people, housing providers and community service agencies. The Rupert Coalition scored some significant wins:
* fire safety standards and inspections were stepped up, so that rooming house residents wouldn’t have to make the terrible choice between freezing to death on the streets or burning to death in their housing.
* the provincial government, with lots of support from the City of Toronto, funded the Rupert pilot project.
As co-ordinator of the Rupert project, I worked with a team that developed 525 units of safe and affordable housing plus special support services to help people with physical or mental health concerns to find a home and to keep that home.
Over a three-year period, we prudently invested millions of dollars in new homes and services and finished the project on time and under budget. The Rupert core team was offered hearty congratulations by the Ontario government, which then shut down the pilot project.
Nineteen years later, there are two powerful lessons from the Rupert fire:
First, the cost of “doing nothing” is measured in the health and lives of the poorest Torontonians.
Second, there are smart and cost-effective housing solutions that worked back then, and can work today.
Here are the names of the ten people who died in the Rupert fire:
Donna Marie Cann, Vincent Joseph Clarke, Stanley Blake Dancy, David Didow, Edward Finnigan, John Thomas Flint, Dedomir Sakotic, Ralph Oral Stone, Vernon Stone, and Victor Paul White.