I want to thank everyone who has called and emailed my office offering feedback and expressing concern for the wellbeing of vulnerable residents experiencing homelessness, and living outside in encampments through this pandemic. As the winter weather hits, I am also deeply concerned for their safety.
Make no mistake, tents are not suitable replacements for permanent housing. Our goal is to get everyone safely indoors this winter, and the City of Toronto has committed to that action by finding emergency funding in the event that the City cannot meet the demands on its shelter system. Additionally, the City of Toronto is committed to funding ‘survival’ equipment and/or supplies at encampments. I think we can agree that everyone has the right to adequate housing with supports that meet their needs.
Part of the path to housing is to incorporate holistic supports to those who are suffering from mental health and addictions. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work. It takes careful planning to secure hotels, interim housing and additional shelter space including staffing and programming; contracts for linens, meals, laundry and cleaning; and coordinating transportation for clients and their belongings. Additionally, we need critical harm reduction services at our shelters, without these there will be more lives lost. COVID-19 has laid bare the deep connection between housing and the ability for individuals and communities to stay minimally safe and healthy during public health events. A fragmented approach to care will not adequately serve these residents or foster long-lasting solutions.
Toronto has seen an unprecedented rise in people experiencing homelessness, a crisis that has long existed and neglected for years by all levels of government. We know that living outdoors, especially in the winter months, is not a safe option for anyone. The City of Toronto continues to work towards ensuring that everyone living outside can be offered a safe place indoors. Staff at Shelter Support and Housing Administration have begun to implement the City of Toronto’s winter plan to rapidly open additional shelter spaces to move people off of the streets. Streets to Homes outreach teams continue to make connections and offers of indoor accommodations. Last week over 50 people were successfully moved from encampments to indoor shelters. This work is not easy, and I am thankful to the City’s frontline staff, advocates and volunteers who are all working towards the same goal: to get everyone safely indoors and onto a path of permanent housing.
Currently, the City’s intake data indicates that there’s flexibility and bed availability in the shelter system. I am troubled by some ongoing reports however that people who call looking for space can’t always access it the first time they call. That is a problem, and an issue I will continue to push staff to solve. Better coordination, data sharing and management between individual shelters operators and central intake is clearly needed.
I also understand why emergency shelter spaces in congregate settings are not attractive options for people. These spaces can be very triggering to those who have experienced the trauma of residential schools, or can feel unwelcoming. When our outreach staff work with these clients, it can sometimes take 15 connections before someone stays housed. When I hear these statistics, I know that the need for more supportive and transitional housing is critical. Without these services, the cycle of residents being left underhoused, or unhoused will continue.
The City’s frontline staff continue to work incredibly hard to support those living in encampments through a transition to housing. Encampments, whether it is tents, sleeping pods or other accommodations, create dangerous circumstances for those living there, and sometimes for the neighbouring residents. These sites are not sanitary, as they lack access to water and washroom facilities. While there are temporary portable toilets, they are maintained by the City’s vendor and were a result of the increased human waste in parks, private laneways and on private property. Additionally, with propane tanks and the use of gasoline to heat food, there is a high risk of fire. Toronto Fire Services has noted that the proposed alternatives to tents are highly flammable which again create incredibly dangerous circumstances.
I am amazed at the ingenuity of Toronto residents stepping up where governments have failed to build small structures for people living outside. Unfortunately, any step the City takes to encourage people to dwell in a place that does not meet the building and fire code is an act of criminal negligence endangering human life. That being said, I would encourage the City to build these partnerships and utilize potential solutions as interim measures.
City Council has committed to bringing everyone indoors this winter but we cannot do this work alone and certainly not, if people choose not to come inside from the cold. We need the Federal and Provincial governments to step up with funding for more affordable, supportive and transitional housing in municipalities across the country. Without that, this housing crisis will exact a human, social and economic toll that is as unnecessary as it is tragic. Please call your MP and MPP and demand more financial aid to scale up rapid and modular housing in the coming months. To learn more about what I’ve done and the action you can take, please visit kristynwongtam.ca/homelessness.