Like any big city around the world, Toronto is faced with big-city issues, one of which is a rise in the city’s homelessness rates. The city says homeless rates have doubled in the last 10 years, with the city’s 7,100 spaces in respite centres, shelters and drop-ins at almost 100 per cent capacity on most nights.
People will do what they can to survive, including seeking refuge in the warm spaces on the city’s transit lines.
CityNews viewers wrote in about some of their daily experiences riding the subway, encountering homeless people. Their concerns weren’t about having to share their commute with some of the most vulnerable populations in our city, rather feeling like there was no Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) presence on-board to help them.
Stuart Green, a spokesperson for the TTC says the transit corporation’s protocol is to let those in vulnerable populations “ride it out” from the elements, especially if people aren’t causing a problem.
“If people are not causing a problem, and it’s a very cold day, for example, we might just let them ride it out,” Green says. “But if people look in distress if our customers alert us to someone who may be loitering, we approach them with sensitivity, with care and caution and compassion because people who are marginalized and vulnerable face their own challenges.”
Green admits there is an increase of homeless people on the transit system during winter months but says the TTC does not track the number of vulnerable people using the system.
The TTC does not have a dedicated arm to help the homeless Green says, but TTC staff are trained to refer homeless individuals to local services to get them to help if they need it.
Councillor Krystin Wong-Tam says the issues of poverty and homelessness including helping those with mental health issues are at the core of the issue. She thinks the city overall is “struggling with the street-involved and the under-housed, but when it comes to helping the homeless on the TTC, the service provider needs to step up to make changes.”
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that homelessness right now across the city and nation is at an all-time high when there is an emergency we have to respond with an escalated level of service,” she says. “The TTC board, leadership and managers are in charge of the overall operations and maintenance of the TTC. As an agency on behalf of the City of Toronto they have access to other city services as they need to.”
Stuart says the TTC does work with community agencies at a weekly situation table to provide a targeted, wrap-around approach to the most vulnerable individuals.
Still, advocates on the ground like Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Shelters say the city and the TTC need to do more.
“In places like Montreal, they basically invite people who don’t have a fixed address, don’t have housing into subway stations,” says Cook. “And like in Toronto, the subway closes late at night, they actually have shuttles that take people to shelters to make sure people are okay.”
Cook says Montreal also has a mobile medical unit that goes around and checks in on people.
“Toronto has nothing like that. Instead, Toronto’s approach has been to hire new transit enforcement officers,” he says. “What [transit officers] have the power to do and what they’re trained to do is to give people tickets and to investigate crimes, I don’t think it’s a good response to people just trying to keep warm.”
According to the city’s homeless census, almost 6,900 people used the overnight shelter system on Monday which is a 94 per cent capacity rate.
Mayor John Tory unveiled the city’s 10-year action plan on affordable housing a few weeks ago. In the plan, 18,000 new supportive housing units for vulnerable residents are included, however, this plan relies on investments from all three levels of government.