Toronto releases its 2022/23 Winter Services Plan, but more must be done to stop unhoused people from freezing to death this winter, say advocates

Toronto has unveiled its plan to “ensure warm and welcoming places are available for those experiencing homelessness” during the coldest months of the year.

In its 2022/23 Winter Services Plan, the city said it would introduce 130 new shelter beds and 100 more hotel rooms for those in the refugee-specific system.

Roughly 500 beds will also be added to the shelter system in the coming months through “safe, moderate increases in capacity” by reducing the separation distance between beds in the shelter system from two to 1.25 metres, the city said.

Aside from opening more shelter spaces, the City of Toronto said so far it has plans to “activate” roughly 60 spaces at warming centres at Metro Hall and Scarborough Civic Centre during periods of extreme cold weather. Details about other sites will be shared publicly once they’re confirmed.

This winter season, the city said it estimates more than 400 new permanent affordable and supportive rental housing units “prioritized for people experiencing homelessness who are staying in emergency shelters or living outdoors” with supports will also be ready for occupancy.

In total, the City of Toronto said it estimates it will provide emergency shelter as well as new housing units for more than 9,000 people in need this winter season.

The city said its Winter Services Plan could evolve as they monitor demand for shelter and continue to search for “appropriate” new shelter capacity.

Further, on especially cold days and nights, teams from the city’s Streets to Homes program will be dispatched to check on those who are living outside and encourage them to seek indoor shelter. Throughout the winter, staff will also be handing out blankets, sleeping bags, and warm winter clothing.

On Tuesday morning, housing and anti-poverty advocates as well as people with lived experience will be gathering at city hall to call for more to be done to prevent individuals experiencing homelessness from dying this winter.

At 10 a.m., the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) will be holding a public delegation to Mayor John Tory’s office to demand an end to cuts to drop-in programming and other essential services and more non-congregate shelter beds now. At that time, they’ll present a letter to both Tory and Toronto Board of Health with nine concrete asks, including stopping the planned closure of shelter hotels, adding an additional 2,700 non-congregate spaces to the shelter system, immediately stopping the eviction of encampment residents, building more rent geared-to-income social housing in Toronto, and instituting stronger COVID-19 and other infection prevention control measures.

“Dropping temperatures, rising COVID cases and an extreme shortage of shelter beds are creating a dangerous situation for people who are homeless. The shelter crisis has reached dire proportions and will grow even worse as the City unleashes major cuts to shelters and other critical services,” SHJN said.

The group, in a news release, went on to reiterate the many challenges unhoused people face in this city to access emergency shelter.

“Every day, an average of 170 people are turned away due to bed shortages and are forced to sleep outside in the rain and cold. Countless others have lost hope and no longer try to access a bed. Recent funding cuts and shelter hotel closures will put more pressure on an already overloaded system,” they wrote.

“According to city data, 221 people experiencing homelessness died in 2021 at a median age of 45. Unless immediate action is taken, homeless deaths will continue to rise this winter.”

Currently, Toronto’s shelter system, which is run by the city and more than 30 partner agencies, accommodates an estimated 8,200 people nightly. This is more people than ever before and is resulting in shelters being full most nights. According to the city, 1,600 more people are seeking shelter every night than just one year ago.

The City of Toronto said its “ultimate goal” is to help people experiencing homelessness secure permanent housing.

By the end of this year, the city said its 24-Month COVID-19 Housing and Homelessness Response Plan will have made nearly 3,000 new supportive and affordable housing “opportunities” available for residents in need, but additional investments from the provincial and federal governments are always needed to build more supportive and affordable housing as well as “ensure that there is safe indoor shelter space, and access to critical supports that help prevent people from becoming homeless.”

“Homelessness is a complex social issue. It requires a strong commitment from all orders of government, community agencies, and stakeholders to work together to provide funding along with public, social and health-related supports,” Gord Tanner, Toronto’s general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, said Tuesday morning.

“The stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid poisoning crisis and the critical lack of substantive supportive and affordable housing all contribute to many people facing significant hardships, placing them in need of emergency shelter and support.

Tanner also said the national housing crisis, rising inflation, and other economic challenges, including the lack of meaningful income supports for low-income and disabled Ontarians, are adding to the pressures on the system.

“As we emerge from pandemic restrictions, the need for shelter has only increased while the COVID funding from other orders of government has decreased or ended, including ongoing funding for temporary emergency shelters,” he said.

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