The ‘Cold’ Shoulder: Toronto’s Response to Homelessness as the Pandemic Rages On

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By: Sabrina Gilmour

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the middle of the winter, most Torontonians will likely find themselves seeking warmth and safety within their homes. For people experiencing homelessness, the colder season might have meant going to one of the 63 shelters the city has to offer. However, this is no typical winter. The once safe place for many is now the place where the virus thrives the most. Homeless Ontarians are 76 percent more likely to test positive for the virus than those who are housed. With overcrowded and unsafe shelter conditions posing an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, those experiencing homelessness are left with no good options.

In response to the pandemic, the City of Toronto issued a 2020-2021 winter plan for people experiencing homelessness. According to this plan, the city opened 40 temporary facilities, 25 of which are currently operating to ensure physical distancing within the shelter system and provide spaces for people living in encampments. Despite this, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated homelessness in the City of Toronto. There are 8,700 people experiencing homelessness on any given night, and the fact of the matter is, shelters are a Band-Aid solution in solving this crisis.

Even before the pandemic, the conditions of homeless shelters in the city have been subject to criticism. Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and homeless advocate, highlighted the inhumane conditions of Toronto shelters and has emphasized that the system is broken. For years, shelters have had the habit of being largely overcrowded and going over their 90% occupancy limit. Now more than ever, the shelter system poses a clear threat to the health and safety of those who stay there. As of September 29, 2020, there were 45 COVID-19 outbreaks within Toronto shelters and 649 people who tested positive from using them. In 2020, the City of Toronto reported that 74 residents died in city shelters, 5 of which were from COVID-19.

It is no surprise that many people experiencing homelessness have chosen to stay in encampments. Although many people find it a safer alternative, the municipal government has continued to evict people from encampments and move them into temporary living situations. One shelter system client outlined, “I left the shelter for the streets because of how crowded it was. It felt unsafe and not clean. But now they took down my tent and all of my things.” Under the Toronto Municipal Code, people are banned from setting up tents and camping in city parks. Encampment evictions are a classic example of policing the poor and pushing them out of public places to make them invisible.

The bottom line: COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the City of Toronto to provide more and safer housing options for those experiencing homelessness. In 2020, the City of Toronto reported 81,664 people on the centralized waiting list for subsidized housing. The city must invest more in affordable housing and create additional social housing units to reduce an extensive waitlist. Current strategies in place must be re-assessed to address the crisis effectively. The pandemic has clearly shown that shelters provide a temporary solution and cannot safely sustain high population densities. People should not have to choose between staying in a tent, especially in below-freezing temperatures, or in a shelter that has been described as a “petri dish” for disease transmission.

The City of Toronto must work with Black and Indigenous populations to ensure their voices are heard as they are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and COVID-19. The city can provide more effective solutions to the homelessness crisis by allowing those with lived experiences to participate in the decision-making process. With this, policy solutions will be centered around the needs of those directly impacted by them.  It is time for the City of Toronto to listen to the needs of people experiencing homelessness and provide everyone with a safe place to call home.

Sabrina Gilmour is a first year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She recently graduated from York University with a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She is interested in contemporary social issues faced by municipalities, particularly in lower-income communities and how cities respond when creating or amending policies that address the inclusion of migrants. Her policy interests include education and social policy.

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