Freezing Temperatures, Frozen Budgets: How Toronto is Failing its Homeless Citizens

Emily Burton-Brown

With temperatures dropping as low as -37 C with wind chill, Toronto experienced record breaking cold this winter. This prompted Environment Canada to issue an extreme cold weather alert, triggering the opening of temporary Warming Respite Centres for the city’s homeless. The homeless needed no warning: freezing temperatures have already contributed to overcrowding at the existing and already under-resourced shelters across the city.

The question remains: how is it that our compassion for others is so often triggered only by the crossing of an arbitrary threshold?

The cold-weather crisis in Ontario this winter has put a spotlight on Toronto’s relationship with its homeless community and the troubling conditions in existing shelters. Recently, public debate has narrowed in on both the shortage of shelter beds, as well as the quality of accommodations at emergency shelters and warming centres. Health Providers Against Poverty (HPAP) released a report last month evaluating Toronto’s warming centres and declared the city’s shelter system in “an undeclared state of emergency”. The findings are startling; as temporary sites are not required to meet the standards of permanent shelters, none of the eight Warming Respite Centres or 24-hour drop in centres met shelter standards set out by either the City of Toronto or the United Nations.

The City of Toronto has set a shelter occupancy target of 90%. However, occupancy rates often hover around 95%, making it extremely difficult to find an available bed. On January 1, the shelters again operated at around 95% capacity with 5460 individuals staying in the shelter system and an additional 445 using the temporary Warming Respite Centres. The difficulty of finding a safe space to sleep is then exacerbated by miscommunication whereby shelters mistakenly turn away individuals who are looking for a bed, despite there still being vacant spaces.

The resulting overcrowding at existing shelters comes with serious risks including: experiences of assault, worsened mental health, and infectious disease outbreaks. This is demonstrated most recently by an influenza outbreak at Seaton House, the city’s largest shelter, with at least 11 hospitalizations and 1 death just last month. Due to aforementioned health and safety concerns, there are some who opt out of the city’s shelter system altogether and risk braving the cold outside.

Other major cities follow similar emergency protocols with the arrival of extreme cold weather. In New York City, a “Code Blue” is issued when the temperature drops below 0 C between 4pm – 8am and the city ensures that no homeless person is turned away when looking for shelter. In Montreal, the transit commission invites the homeless to take refuge in subway stations on days of extreme cold (defined as temperatures dipping below -38 with or without wind chill), and provides a shuttle service to local shelters.

It appears that it takes the real possibility of people literally freezing to death on the streets to prompt some semblance of a government response, but the reality is that homelessness is associated with a higher risk of premature death all year round – not just when it’s cold outside. Exposure to the elements is just one of many risk factors for homeless individuals, in addition to addiction, mental health, violence and chronic health issues. According to a recent release by Toronto Public Health, just under 100 homeless people died in Toronto in 2017, with a median age of 48 years compared to an average age of death of 79 for men and 83 for women in the general population.

To be clear, Toronto’s shelters and Montreal’s transit commission are providing important and life-saving services. But I find it troubling that it takes record-breaking cold temperatures and an emergency shelter crisis to elicit a response from our government.

On February 12, homeless advocates from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty interrupted Toronto’s city council meeting to demand the approval of 1500 additional shelter beds, with at least 1000 added this year to meet the demand next winter. Although the Shelter Support and Housing Administration’s budget will increase by $21.8 million in 2018, the budget was only approved with the target of 1000 new beds over the next three years; 361 beds will be added in 2018, with efforts made by city staff to expedite the overall process.

In response to critiques of underwhelming municipal action, City Council cited the competitive nature of Toronto’s real estate market as an impediment to acquiring adequate buildings for new shelter spaces. The City and shelter workers alike also acknowledge there is a problem in the shelter system, but state they are doing the best they can with the limited resources available in the face of increasing demand. Yet between 2009-2017, there has only been a 0.5% increase in the city’s spending on shelters despite inflationary costs rising by more than 20%.

By all accounts, it would appear that Toronto is failing its homeless citizens by choice, not by fate.

Homelessness is not an inevitable feature of our communities. Canada is a wealthy country, and Toronto is a rich city. The fact that, by the latest counts, we have over 5200 homeless people sleeping outdoors, in emergency shelters, or in correctional facilities in Toronto alone is indicative of a failure in the system. Something is not working, and it’s time the city implements proactive rather than reactive design thinking in its approach to handling the housing crisis.

Increasing the city’s emergency and affordable housing stock is absolutely necessary but is insufficient on its own. An important first step in the design thinking process is empathy – if the city is trying to find a feasible but humane solution, they must listen to the gender, cultural or neighbourhood-specific concerns of those who will be impacted by their decisions (or lack thereof). We need more engagement and human connection – to put in the work to understand how we can help people get off the streets permanently, rather than just providing a bed (if they’re lucky) in an overcrowded and ill-equipped shelter for a night and calling it a job done.

So, yes – getting people out of the extreme cold for a night is important, but it is impossible to argue that Mayor Tory and members of his city council deserve the keys to the city (literally) simply for implementing the bare minimum of measures to protect citizens from dying in the cold. Covenant House is currently running a campaign with the message: “How young do they have to be before we give a damn?” I argue it goes one step further – how deadly does it have to be before we give a damn?


Emily Burton-Brown is originally from Vancouver, BC and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from the University of British Columbia. She has over three years of professional experience in market research, and is interested in the role of public opinion on the policy process. When she’s not in class, Emily can usually be found practicing yoga or losing herself in Game of Thrones theories on Reddit.