City of Toronto continues to take extraordinary steps to help and protect people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, the City of Toronto has moved at unprecedented speed to adjust its services for those experiencing homelessness by creating 2,300 spaces in new temporary shelter and hotel programs for physical distancing.

So far in 2020, the City has also referred more than 2,500 people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing through a combination of housing allowances and rent-geared-to-income units, representing a 50 per cent increase over the same period last year.

There are more than 6,000 shelter spaces in the city today.

The City’s Streets to Homes team and partner agencies also continue to work hard to support people living outside and to connect them with safer, indoor spaces including, shelters, housing and hotels. The City has helped more than 1,100 people move inside from encampments since the pandemic began. In the past two weeks, alone, 110 people have accepted offers to move inside.

Importantly, City programs in shelters, hotels, and transitional and supportive housing, also include medical supports, like mental health and addiction counselling, meals, clean linen and access to showers, to ensure people don’t return to living outside.

Eliminating homelessness, ultimately, requires housing that is affordable and provides support services to help residents maintain stable housing. In April 2020, the City launched the Modular Housing Initiative that opens 100 new supportive homes by the end of the year. In 2021, an additional 150 modular supportive homes will also be created for people experiencing homelessness. Through the federal Rapid Housing Initiative, the City will be able to add a minimum of 417 affordable and supportive homes ready for occupancy by end of 2021.

The safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto is inside, in a shelter, hotel or, ultimately, housing, and that is why the City is focused on investing significant public funding on these services.

Eliminating homelessness, ultimately, requires housing. Over the next 24 months, the City is utilizing the recently announced Federal Rapid Housing Initiative to create 3,000 new units of housing. The safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto is inside, in a shelter, hotel or, ultimately, housing, and that is why the City is focused on investing significant public funding on these services.

To ensure the safety and well-being of Toronto’s most vulnerable, the City opened additional temporary sites in its shelter system, including temporary housing and hotels, to create physical distancing. During the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, people experiencing homelessness need the assistance of the City, our partner agencies and other orders of government now, more than ever. Over the last several weeks, the City’s winter services plan has also begun operations.

Adding 620 additional spaces over the winter, this year’s plan offers more space than any other previous year and includes shelter space, hotel space and permanent housing. For the first time, as well, there are four warming centres, an increase from one, across the city when an extreme cold weather alert is called.

Living outside is not safe. As of December 2, the City has identified 395 tents in 66 sites in parks across Toronto. This number includes wooden structures, tents and green pods. Encampments in parks and other public spaces pose a significant risk of fire and other hazards to those living in an encampment, as well as to emergency responders when called to a site. Open flames, generators and unsafe wiring, combined with the storage of gasoline, propane and other highly flammable substances makes living outside extremely dangerous.

To date this year, Toronto Fire Services has responded to 216 fires in encampments. That is a 218% increase over the same period in 2019. Sadly, one person has died as a result of an encampment fire this year. Seven people have lost their lives as a result of encampments fires in Toronto since 2010.

The recent emergence of makeshift shelters and pods in encampments represent a significantly increased danger to those who use them and anyone in the vicinity if these structures were to be involved in a fire. These pods are highly combustible, particularly those constructed of polystyrene insulation. They do not meet the definition of a structure under the provisions of the Ontario Building Code or Ontario Fire Code, but regardless, the City is significantly concerned about the unsafe conditions living outside – be it a tent or other structure – presents.

The installation of smoke and/or CO alarms do not mitigate risks, and are insufficient in providing fire safety and, in fact, may provide a false sense of security for those in them. Any fire is a risk for those in these structures, as well as to the community. Early detection of smoke, fire and/or carbon monoxide in an outdoor environment is highly unreliable due to temperature and humidity fluctuations. Given the highly combustible nature of these pods, for example, escaping a fire without serious injury is highly unlikely.

City bylaws prohibit camping in parks, ravines, boulevards or on any right-of-way, including erecting structures. The safety of those experiencing homelessness, as well as the safety of all Toronto residents, is paramount.

City parks are for all residents of the City to use for recreation. This was recently supported and affirmed by a Superior Court of Justice decision, where the court refused to grant an injunction against the City and its right to maintain parks spaces for everyone. While living in a park is not permitted, nor is it safe or appropriate, wellness checks and safety assessments of people living outside are carried out by multi-divisional City teams and partner agencies 365 days a year and voluntary referrals to safe, indoor space continue to happen on an individual basis. An encampment site is only scheduled to be cleared once everyone at that location has been offered safe, indoor space, and notice is provided to give people time to collect personal belongings.

Central Intake is an important part of helping people find shelter on any given day. When someone calls requesting shelter, the City looks for all available space that fits a person’s needs. If there are no beds available at the time they call or the referral does not match the persons specific needs, the person will be asked to call back, or may be offered a call back, as a bed may become available later that day or night. Space availability is fluid, as someone, for example, may be discharged from a program, thereby making a bed available. As well, a space may become available that was being held but is no longer needed, or a person with a bed does not return by check-in time.

Despite all this work and public investment, demand for shelter remains higher than ever before, and the system is at or near capacity most nights. This is why the City continues to open new space and has renewed calls for government partners to continue the cooperative work to implement more housing solutions.

During COVID-19, the City has provided $6.1 million in funding to all shelters, 24-hour respite sites, and drop-ins for infection prevention and control (IPAC), personal protective equipment (PPE), and is distributing more than 100,000 pieces of PPE to the homelessness sector each week for use by staff. The City screens staff and clients in shelters daily and refers anyone with symptoms to provincial assessment centres. Clients awaiting test results and those who test positive are transferred to a recovery/isolation site with medical supports.

Toronto has the largest shelter system in Canada and is a leader in supporting those experiencing homelessness, with shelter, programs and critical supports to help find housing, as well as employment. Providing safe indoor space, including permanent and affordable housing, not living outside, is the appropriate and dignified response to help people experiencing homelessness. The City will continue its efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of every Toronto resident.

Anyone wanting to make a difference and contribute to helping people experiencing homelessness should consider donating to the City’s “Holiday Wish List.” There are numerous community agencies the City partners with to help make a difference. More information can be found here: https://www.toronto.ca/business-economy/partnerships-sponsorships-donations/donate/holiday-wish-list/?t=1606774042.