COVID-19 has taught us many things since it effectively shut down our economy this past March. We have a greater understanding of the need to equitably distribute space on our roads. We are consistently reminded how critical workers who grow, sell and distribute our food and provide essential services are. We have seen why we must continue to invest in our public health system and our social safety net. Critically, it has also shown us how quickly circumstances beyond our control can leave us unable to pay rent or for food. In the initial weeks of the shutdown, it exposed how many people were living paycheck to paycheck.
Thousands of people who live in shelters and on our streets have encountered their own unavoidable circumstances before the global pandemic hit. So while people who lost their income due to COVID have had access to emergency support, people already living on the streets were not given the same kind of lifeline. There are over 100,000 people on Toronto’s centralized waiting list for affordable housing, with waitlists up to 12 years or more for a one-bedroom unit and 10 years or more for larger unit sizes. These are all people with families, who have dreams and who deserve the same consideration and care we are showing to everyone who has been impacted by COVID-19.
The proliferation of encampments we are seeing and the associated concerns about safety are a symptom of Toronto’s pre-existing and ongoing housing, mental health and addiction crises. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the opioid crisis rages on, with at least 74 citizens of Toronto having died while experiencing homelessness in the past two years. Approximately 14,000 Toronto residents live with serious and persistent mental health challenges and continue to wait for access to supportive housing. The chronic lack of deeply affordable, supportive and transitional housing and mental health services—along with a shelter system that is bursting at the seams—force people with nowhere else to go onto the streets and into tents and encampments.
I want to be clear: the encampments are not an adequate form of housing for anyone and pose a danger to the people living in them. This has been made evident with reports of lateral violence and Toronto Fire removing gasoline and propane tanks from the sites. It also must be acknowledged that local residents, business owners and Toronto Police have observed increasing threats to the safety in neighbourhoods immediately adjacent to the encampments. I am grateful to everyone at Shelter Support and Housing, Streets to Homes and Parks, Forestry and Recreation who are working hard to offer indoor accommodations and other housing options to move people out of these situations. I am grateful to the faith leaders and volunteers who continue to draw attention and advocacy to this critical issue.
Housing is a human right and this is a crisis that requires a co-ordinated, intergovernmental human rights-based emergency response. In a just world, no one would find themselves homeless without proper mental health support. In a country as rich as Canada, we should have a national housing plan fully funded, so that anyone who moves into the shelter system would be immediately connected into safe and adequate housing, thus allowing them to isolate in their own homes. Unfortunately, there has been inadequate government action from all three levels, resulting in years of delay in addressing our housing, mental health and addiction crises. It has made it difficult for the City on its own to secure or build enough permanent housing to provide a home to everyone living in the shelter system or outdoors in a timely fashion. Instead, City staff have been working to create adequate distancing in existing shelters and respites to allow for physical distancing, while simultaneously identifying and securing hotel rooms and staffing new housing sites since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is by no means a perfect solution, and I can understand the reluctance to enter any congregate living situation, especially during this health crisis. However, with access to regular meals, proper sanitation including toilets and showers, caseworkers, appropriate medical attention, medication and harm reduction services, I believe that it is still far safer than living in encampments, and it creates a much clearer path to permanent housing in the future.
As I mentioned last week, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on our ability to offer and deliver the kinds of life-saving supports that are so critical to improving the safety and health of our downtown communities. By refusing to recognize and declare a housing emergency before the COVID-19 pandemic, City staff are now trying to play catch up, and are trying to solve a housing crisis within the broader COVID-19 crisis.
I know there is some confusion on what the City of Toronto’s policy and procedure is for clearing encampments during COVID-19. While there was an initial moratorium on clearing encampments, efforts have now shifted to moving people inside. As of May 15, 2020, 97 people have been moved from encampments to safer spaces inside. As a result, 10 encampments have been cleared. Starting on May 18, an additional 60 people had begun to be moved from encampments to safer inside spaces in shelter, respite, hotels and interim housing.
When Streets to Homes helps someone move from an encampment to an indoor space, they provide transport for them and their belongings. Anything that is left behind at the site is disposed of by City Staff. When this can't be done immediately, staff will return to the site as soon as possible to complete the disposal of abandoned items.
I know that there are real safety concerns as incidents of vandalism and violence increase. The fastest way that we can solve that is to ensure there is safe, supportive and affordable housing available to everyone. The City of Toronto does not possess the resources to eradicate homelessness without provincial and federal support. This is especially true as the budgetary impacts of COVID-19 have hit the City hard. The City Manager has advised City Council that the municipality is facing financial pressures, or a “burn rate,” of $65 million every week. By the end of the year, the City will need at least a $1.5 billion bailout to address the COVID-19 economic impacts.
Under the emergency order, the City of Toronto’s response to the encampments lies solely under the purview of Mayor John Tory and the leadership of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). I have been demanding that City Council declare the homelessness and housing crisis a state of emergency for years. I have and will continue to raise this issue with the Mayor and those in the EOC.
Even so, I am in almost daily communication with City Staff about moving people from encampments into a properly distanced shelter bed, isolated hotel room or private housing. City Staff have assured me that no one is being moved from their tents without multiple offers of indoor accommodations. This work is done in coordination with the City’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration staff, Toronto Public Health staff, TTC and Toronto Police from our local officers in 51 Division. I have been assured repeatedly that Toronto Police are doing everything in their power to keep all communities safe, including those who decide to sleep outdoors. I know that in addition to concerns about neighbourhood safety, it is distressing to see vulnerable people who need help yet feel powerless to do anything.
We need to keep the pressure on Mayor Tory, Premier Ford and Prime Minister Trudeau to work together to solve homelessness. I hope you will consider signing onto this campaign to demand that City Council declare Toronto's homelessness and housing crisis a state of emergency.
Toronto Police are asking residents to report incidents of concern which is critical to data collection and providing enhanced service allocations. If you or someone else is confronted with life-threatening danger, please call 911 immediately. Alternatively, the Toronto Police request that online reports be submitted at torontopolice.on.ca/core or to torontopolice.on.ca/community-complaints.
You can also call their non-emergency line at 416-808-2222. In the past, by diligently reporting criminal activity, residents were able to see our community policing and other service levels increase. You can do your part: see it, report it.
If you see someone living with homelessness and in need of support you can call Streets to Homes at 416-338-4766. For mental health support, the Gerstein Crisis Centre is a valuable 24-hours a day, seven days a week service in our community and they have crisis workers on standby at 416-929-5200. More resources, including additional how to report information, are available on my website at kristynwongtam.ca.
Thank you for your resilience, it is an honour to represent you.
Today’s Community Care shoutout goes to Daniel Marrello and his brother who have created TechServeTO, and recruited 105 volunteers who have graciously decided to donate their time in order to place five phone calls to seniors requiring assistance with technology. According to a recent study, 78% of seniors aged 65-75 reported they own a smartphone, but only reported “moderate” levels of confidence in using them. The severity of the problem is accentuated by the current crisis, in which tech-based connections are now the only real way to connect with loved ones and the community. These brothers were recently on CBC News, 680 News, NEWSTALK 1010, Zoomer Radio, and OMNI News. Thank you for taking the time and making these connections!
Please continue to email my office at [email protected] to share examples of community care in your neighbourhood and ways you are supporting your community at this time. I’ll be happy to promote it, space permitting, in our communication to the residents and business owners in Ward 13. Every bit goes a long way!
COVID-19: Ongoing Tips to Reduce Virus Spread
The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed. If you are sick, even with mild symptoms, stay home and self-isolate.
As we slowly return to some sense of normalcy, we need to continue physical distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Everyone has a role to play. The actions you take will help protect you and everyone in our community.
When you are unable to keep a six feet/two-metre distance from others, wear a mask or face covering. This includes when you are:
- in elevators, common areas, waiting rooms or shopping;
- using transit, taxi or rideshare services; and
- sick and going for a medical appointment.
Be respectful of others who choose not to wear a mask. Some health conditions make it hard to breathe when wearing a mask.
City of Toronto COVID-19 Updates
There are 9,357 cases of COVID-19 in the city, an increase of 228 cases since yesterday. There are 411 cases in hospital, with 96 in ICU. In total, 6,885 people have recovered from COVID-19, an increase of 150 cases since yesterday. To date, there have been 732 COVID-19 deaths in Toronto. Case status data can be found here.
Everyone has a role to play to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The best way to protect yourself and others is to adhere to the advice of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health:
- practise physical distancing by keeping two metres (six feet) from others
- wear a face covering or non-medical mask in settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained
- wash hands often, using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and
- stay home if feeling unwell and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
The COVID-19 enforcement team is out responding to complaints and proactively patrolling parks and other public spaces, in an effort to ensure public understanding of the need to limit social interactions. Officers continue educating residents first, only issuing tickets in circumstances where education efforts have failed.
Toronto Public Library (TPL) today announced details about the rollout of its curbside drop-off and pick-up service. Starting Monday, May 25, select library drop boxes will be opened to accept the return of library materials. On Monday, June 1, drop boxes at all remaining accessible branches will open to accept returns. TPL estimates that there are more than one million items currently out on loan.
The Ontario government is funding 15 high-quality and promising proposals that were submitted in response to a recent call for proposals for the Ontario COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund. Announced only four weeks ago, the $20 million fund was created as an immediate response to engaging the research community on ways to fight COVID-19. Where relevant, a portion of these funds will be used to cover costs associated with licensing and commercialization, including patenting, of the valuable intellectual property generated by successful projects to ensure any economic outcomes from these proposals benefit Ontario's economy, workers and researchers.
Government of Canada Updates
Prime Minister announces additional support for Indigenous peoples living in urban centres and off reserve
The Government of Canada announced $305 million for a new, distinctions-based Indigenous Community Support Fund to address immediate needs in Indigenous communities, and help them respond to COVID-19. The Fund included $15 million in support for Indigenous organizations that provide services to Indigenous peoples living in urban centres and off reserve.
COVID-19 Information and Resources
Now is the time to stay informed through credible sources, and to follow the advice of our public health professionals. Together we can limit the spread of COVID-19.
Phone lines for telehealth, TPH and 311 continue to experience very high volumes. Please help keep the phones lines open for people who are sick by visiting the Toronto Public Health COVID-19 website for up-to-date information and resources: toronto.ca/covid-19
Call if you develop symptoms!
Toronto Public Health Hotline
8:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Call if you have questions about COVID-19.
Email: [email protected]
Outside City limits: 416-392-2489
Call if you have questions about City services, or to report people
Email: [email protected]