Concerns rise as temperatures drop and Toronto shelter system struggles to keep up with demand

As winter nears, a rising number of people in Toronto are being turned away from the shelter system and left on the cold street. Caryn Ceolin with the renewed concerns over how the city will keep its most vulnerable residents warm.

Every night in Toronto, an average of 187 people seeking warmth and safety are turned away from the shelter system, raising renewed concerns about how the City will help its most vulnerable residents trying to survive the winter outdoors.

“We personally see people every day in our emergency department and in our hospital wards who are homeless and for whom we can’t find a shelter bed for,” said Dr. Stephen Hwang with the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital.

He told CityNews a rising number of people are turning up at the already overcrowded emergency department, not because they have a medical problem but simply because they need a place to get out of the cold.

Hwang, whose research focuses on ending homelessness and improving the health of those who live outside, said social workers will spend hours calling the City’s central intake office to find spots inside shelters. But very few leave the emergency department with somewhere to go.

“I’m afraid we’re going to see people dying from hypothermia, literally freezing to death on the street,” Hwang said.

According to the City, the shelter system is currently accommodating approximately 8,200 people nightly. That’s 1,600 more than this time last year, and more than they’ve ever had.

At the same time, the City is closing temporary shelter sites opened during the pandemic. Some residents at the Novotel allege they were evicted last month as the City prepares to close the leased hotel by the end of the year. The move impacts 251 unhoused people.

As Hwang explained, people are in encampments because there is not enough safe shelter space for them.

While the City vows outreach staff hand out blankets, sleeping bags and warm clothing in the wintertime, people are not offered safer alternatives to propane heat, raising the risk of frostbite or the danger of fire.

Last month, propane tanks left in an vacant encampment under the Bathurst Street bridge exploded.

Meantime, a fire under the Gardiner Expressway at Spadina Avenue on Sunday night sent one man to hospital with critical injuries. Officials say a single tent was found in the same area. It’s unclear how the fire started or if the tent was involved in any way, but the scene illustrated looming fears ahead of the coldest weather.

City data shows just over 3,400 people have found permanent housing out of shelters between January and October this year. That’s more than in 2021, but it still hasn’t been enough to meet demand. During the same period, more than 7,800 people entered the shelter system for the first time.

“Encampments are clearly not the answer,” said Hwang. “No one wants to see people in encampments. They’re not safe or a preferred place for people to stay, but we’ve literally created a situation where people have no other choice.”

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