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Toronto's homeless community demands better winter plan from city

Last Updated Oct 12, 2021 at 4:56 pm EDT

Toronto police, security staff and City of Toronto crews at Lamport Stadium Park to dismantle a homeless encampment on July 21, 2021. CITYNEWS/Bert Dandy

TORONTO – Toronto’s homeless community and its supporters are demanding a better plan from the city for the coming winter.

The Shelter Housing Justice Network, which represents members of the homeless community and those who work with them, has issued a report with several recommendations for the city to implement.

It says leases on hotels used for the homeless during the pandemic should be extended through the winter.

“The City has scrambled to add unplanned spaces because of this poor planning,” the group said in a news release.

“To avoid repeated planning failure, address the ongoing crisis and systemic inadequacies and injustices SHJN is calling for the Winter Plan and the plan for the spring and beyond to be fully implemented.”

SHJN says shelter residents’ deaths are 78 per cent higher in the first 8 months of 2021 over 2019, adding that it disproportionately impacts Indigenous and Black people in Toronto with 63 per cent of all unhoused people in Toronto considered Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC).

“The city must repeal the no-camping bylaw,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries Toronto.

“People have the right to exist.”

The group would also like the city’s no-camping bylaw repealed to allow those who are homeless to sleep in Toronto parks.

The city cleared several homeless encampments from parks this past summer, saying they were unsafe. The city won a court battle last year that upheld its powers to enact and enforce the no-camping bylaw.

Homeless encampments popped up throughout the city when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Hundreds fled shelters for fear of contracting the virus.

The city said Tuesday the encampments were not safe and illegal.

“The city cannot force people to come inside and avail themselves of the many services offered by the city, but living in an encampment in a city park or right-of-way is not permitted,” said city spokesman Anthony Toderian.

The city said it has moved nearly 7,300 people to permanent housing from the shelter system in the time since the pandemic hit and August this year.

The overdose crisis in the province is also hitting the homeless at a much higher rate than the general public.

On Tuesday, advocates added 16 names — many John Does — to a memorial for homeless people who have died on the streets and in shelters during August and September.

“We are in the middle of an escalating overdose crisis,” Cook said at the memorial outside the Holy Trinity church.

“Our loved ones and friends are dying. Half of the people who die without housing die of drug toxicity — this is alarming and must be addressed.”

Jennifer Jewell, who lived in an encampment before taking the city’s offer to move into a shelter hotel downtown 10 months ago, said safe housing should be the city’s highest priority.

“We need housing now, people need to be provided safe spaces to heal, they need homes,” Jewell said.

While shelter hotels provide a room, she said the city needs to offer more harm reduction services because she’s seen many die in her hotel alone. She said it took the city 11 months to set up a peer-support program to help with overdoses.

“Please help us,” Jewell said. “Police are no solution.”

Jewell said she has no idea how long she can stay at the hotel the city has leased despite constantly asking officials.

The city said it “continues to explore appropriate options” to ensure vulnerable residents have access to safe indoor shelter space and that it plans to “continue current response efforts” until at least the end of the year.

“Most hotel providers have indicated willingness to extend leases to at least April 2022 to mitigate the need for transitions during the winter,” Toderian added.

The city’s winter services plan will be shared in early November, Toderian said, and will include details on 24-hour respite centres and warming centres that will be activated when extreme cold-weather alerts are issued.