Advocates call on City of Toronto to do more to boost shelter system ahead of winter

City officials are meeting Thursday to discuss their plan to help those living on the street stay warm this winter. Faiza Amin reports on some of the measures the city is taking.

By Meredith Bond and Faiza Amin

Several advocates are urging the City of Toronto to do more to boost the shelter system as we approach the winter season.

The Economic and Community Development Committee is debating the strategy released last week by city staff on Tuesday and over 40 people were signed up to speak on the issue.

The strategy, which will be implemented on November 15 if passed, includes adding up to 180 spaces in the shelter system and opening a 24-hour respite centre with capacity for 40 people.

There will also be 170 spaces activated in four warming centres when temperatures reach -5 C. Additional surge spaces will be made available when temperatures reach -15 C.

“I want to stress that the winter services plan may continue to evolve as we monitor demand for warming centres and continue to search for appropriate locations to add capacity,” said Gord Tanner, general manager of Shelter, Support and Housing Administration.

“Staff have connected with real estate brokers, faith leaders, community groups and other city divisions and agencies throughout the year to find additional sites for warming centers, and that search will continue to find more suitable locations.”

Tanner previously told CityNews they are putting in their best efforts, but the city’s emergency shelter system is already at capacity, and the strain is only augmenting.

He added more long-term solutions need to be offered by other levels of government for them to meet the current need.

A second report published on Tuesday showed that there are capital infrastructure pressures, including with temporary spaces the city is leasing.

Contracts due to end by December 2024 that represent 48 per cent or over 4,000 shelter spaces are at risk of being lost if the leases aren’t extended or replaced.

Speakers highlight challenges, solutions that people experiencing homelessness are facing

The speakers spoke of the challenges for women experiencing homelessness, unhoused youth and refugees, many of whom are either sleeping in religious groups and organizations that are struggling to provide basic needs for the asylum seekers or on the street outside 129 Peter Street in Toronto.

Siu Mee Cheng from Street Haven, a shelter agency for women, said they have turned away over 500 women since mid-June. They only served 500 women in total in 2022.

Cheng said they have been working towards expanding their space but have not received adequate funding. She also implored that the city include in their 10-year plan that 25 per cent of shelters be deemed women-only.

Terri-Lynn Langdon of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network called the winter shelter strategy a “death plan for the homeless,” stating that 191 people experiencing homelessness died last year.

She urged the city to do more, joining others in calling on the city to ask the federal government to open the Moss Park Armoury as shelter space — previously used as a winter respite centre in 2018.

Stephen Mensah from the Toronto Youth Cabinet said the city needs a specific strategy that acknowledges the precise needs of youth and the unique challenges they face, adding there has only been an increase of eight shelter spaces for youth since 2020.

George William Wilobo, with the African Centre for Refugees in Ontario, told the committee they are looking to develop a one-stop African centre of refugees, 2SLGBTQ+ and Black community that would provide 325 shelter spaces and a community centre for African refugees that offers case management, counselling and provides house workers to help them pursue permanent housing solutions.

Dominion Church International and Pilgrim Feast have been housing over 400 refugees for the last few months. Ejay Tupe, Director of the Toronto Urban Missions Hub for the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, who has been assisting the organizations, recommended that the city provide more funding.

“There is no acknowledgement of the seriousness of the reality of African refugees, experiencing their first winter and having no additional supports leveraged for them,” read a letter written to the committee by Tupe.

City council has voted to provide refunds for their efforts to the organizations, but Tupe said the refund portal only covers $19 per person. They are asking for a $50 per diem.

“I urge this committee to not only affirm the current situation that these two churches are covering a significant service gap, but also to give them better resources to assist them in running their operations better,” wrote Tupe.

The Toronto Shelter Network and the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness also wrote a letter to the committee, saying they fear the additional space being offered will not be enough to keep up demand for shelter beds as currently 300 people per night are turned away and there are almost 400 families on the family placement list.

Several residents and parents were also at the committee meeting to speak out against a planned respite centre being moved from 25 Augusta Ave to 629 Adelaide Street, close to two elementary schools in the West Queen West neighbourhood.

Many of the neighbourhood locals have started a Facebook group to draw attention to their apprehensions about the proximity of two elementary schools and the possibility of significant public safety issues in the area.

The site will open with 60 spaces at the beginning of 2024 and will be run by the St. Felix Centre which services to marginalized communities who are experiencing homelessness.

A meeting is expected to be held on Thursday with city officials for residents.

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