Deaths among people experiencing homelessness in Toronto nearly doubled in 3 years: data

A Toronto advocate who’s also experiencing homelessness is sounding the alarms over a sharp rise in deaths that are happening in the city’s shelter system and on the streets. Shauna Hunt reports.

By Shauna Hunt and Lucas Casaletto

A Toronto homeless advocate is sounding the alarm after a steep increase in deaths happening in the city’s shelter system and the streets.

According to Toronto Public Health (TPH), the number of deaths among unhoused people has nearly doubled in the last three years.

A man who’s an advocate for those experiencing homelessness says the shelter he’s staying at is on track to hit 200 deaths this year.

Gru tells CityNews he’s been living in a downtown Toronto shelter for the last 17 months but has been unhoused for nearly a decade. He says he spends much of his time advocating for himself and on behalf of the almost 10,000 people in Toronto experiencing homelessness.

“I figured I could live out of a tent for a couple of months, build up enough money do first and last, furnish a place and everything else. Nine years later [and nothing],” Gru says, noting a shift in shelters and on the streets.

He says he knows at least two people personally who died recently.

RELATED: Youth-specific strategy needed to combat homelessness in Toronto

“The news travels fast because there is a massive community,” Gru says

According to the TPH data, there has been a rapid spike in unhoused people dying. In 2019, the City of Toronto reported 128 deaths among people experiencing homelessness. That figure rose to 144 a year later and reached 221 deaths in 2021.

In the last six months, 92 people have died with more than half of those deaths attributed to drug toxicity.

“People are using [drugs] to survive their day-to-day struggle,” Gru says.

“They find what they’re using, the substances they’re using, is not what they anticipated.”

A TPH spokesperson tells CityNews it has integrated “harm reduction” into City-based shelters and expanded extensive mental health supports to 12 shelter hotels. They said the City will continue to advocate for expanding these critical and necessary services.

City of Toronto’s decision to clear encampments an issue: advocate

Gru says the drug poisoning crisis is just a piece of the puzzle. He says he believes the red-hot real estate market and affordable housing crisis create a wave of poverty. Gru adds the City’s decision to clear parks of homeless encampments has pushed people into isolation.

“I am not saying that encampments are an ideal place for anybody to live in,” he says.

“I am saying that people found a sense of community there that we were then able in those spaces to help keep each other alive.”

City of Toronto bylaws currently prohibits anyone from setting up a tent or structure, camping or occupying a park for non-recreational purposes.

Mayor John Tory strongly advocates keeping Toronto’s parks clear of encampments. Tory has said on several occasions that encampments are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal.

“We’ve made strenuous efforts in all these different locations to find indoor housing for the people affected who are experiencing homelessness, and those efforts will continue,” he said in June.

Police remove encampment supporters as they clear Lamport Stadium Park homeless encampment in Toronto on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Encampments have become frequent during the pandemic as more shelter users took to the streets, citing safety concerns and COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters.

In July 2021, city officials came under heavy criticism after an attempt to evict people from a homeless encampment at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium Park led to violent clashes with police.

A total of 26 people were arrested, and 30 structures were removed from that encampment.

As we head into a new era at Toronto city hall with a municipal election in full swing, Gru is calling on the next group of leaders to take the time to consult with people experiencing homelessness to help get a handle on this crisis.

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