Shelter System in Collapse: Toronto Residents Demand Action, Gather Supplies to Address Emergency

Press Release
Thursday, January 20, 2022
Time: 11:00 am
Location: Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, 129 Peter St (at Richmond)

The City of Toronto shelter system is in collapse. It is often unable to accept new residents, or even answer the phone and the City is incapable of meeting the basic needs of unhoused people inside and outside of the shelter system.

There are 50 shelters currently in outbreak, unable to accept new residents. There have been 2,292 COVID cases in the shelter system, 20% of which have in the last two weeks. The system is also burdened with longstanding and unresolved systemic issues of violence, theft and discrimination, in addition to COVID-19 safety issues – making many people feel unsafe accessing shelter beds and staying outside instead. These people are often criminalized by the City. In 2021, 132 people died in the shelter system. There were 46 suspected or confirmed fatal overdoses in the shelter system in the first three quarters of 2021, the same as all of 2020 and 4.6 times higher than in 2019. There were 1,037 suspected non-fatal overdoses in the first three quarters of 2021. The collapse of the shelter system is systemic and requires multiple interventions to address.

The City tells housed people to isolate away from others if symptomatic; yet, it has adopted in situ recovery for shelter residents – even in congregate spaces. Recovery beds have been cut to 60. “Recovery beds are now only ‘accessible’ to the most vulnerable – but the site is consistently full so the there are no spaces available. Shelter residents are especially vulnerable to COVID. Forcing COVID positive people, particularly those who are symptomatic, to isolate in situ can be dangerous. The lack of recovery beds puts everyone at risk,” says Laura MacDonald, a registered nurse at Regent Park Community Health Centre. “At the same time, the lack of beds in the shelter system over all is a major health concern – especially in cold weather.”

Shelter, Housing Justice Network Steering Committee Member Lorraine Lam says, “the City says everything is fine – that it doesn’t need help. But the system has been in crisis for years. When it turns people away from shelters and stops answering the phone, when sick, COVID positive people are forced to sleep outside and others are left to recover in congregate settings, it is obvious everything isn’t fine. That is why we are calling on both levels of government, the United Nations, the Red Cross and other international humanitarian aid organizations for emergency assistance; it is also why we are calling on Toronto residents to donate survival supplies.” Lam continues: “We are calling on people who can, to donate items that include: tents, sleeping bags, winter clothing, masks, rapid tests and gift cards. The City has failed to meet the basic needs of its unhoused residents but the community is continuing to come together to support our neighbours.

Key Demands:

  1. Increase capacity of the COVID recovery program to at least 200 beds.
  2. Immediately incorporate 2,250 permanent, non-congregate shelter beds into the system.
  3. Repeal the ‘no camping’ bylaw.
  4. Extend shelter-hotel leases.
  5. Distribute at least 3,000 new housing allowances to unhoused people in 2022 and make them available to all unhoused people.
  6. Freeze all evictions with the powers of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
  7. Broaden the emergency weather system to respond to real-world conditions (as per the Winter Plan).
  8. Expand overdose prevention, education, training, and response and implement the recommendations of the Toronto Shelter-Hotel Overdose Preparedness Assessment Project.
  9. Implement COVID-19 indoor air quality safety measures and ensure full transparency & public reporting about each shelter site.
  10. Implement all of the recommendations from the SHJN Winter Plan.