With temperatures plunging below zero, biting winds ripping through layers of clothing, those experiencing homelessness in the city are at risk like no other time of year. People die. And that begs the question whether or not the city is doing enough to protect them.
According to recent Toronto Public Health (TPH) data, there’s been a spike in deaths of people experiencing homelessness in the city.The report,which surveyed the deaths of homeless individuals from 2017 to 2022, indicates deaths have nearly doubled over the past few years.
In 2017, the city reported 101 deaths amongst people experiencing homelessness in the city. In 2021, that figure doubled to 221. The average deaths of those individuals on a week-to-week basis have tripled, rising from 1.9 deaths a week in 2017 to 3.5 this year.
A factor in those figures could be that people are being turned away at overburdened Toronto shelters.
Where can the city improve?
Although the City of Toronto’s Winter Services Plan notes that Toronto shelters are currently accommodating 8,200 a night, the figure shows that numbers have been higher than ever before. Last year the figure was 1,600 less, and now shelters are closing without any alternative.
One example is 45 The Esplanade, the site of Novotel. In Feb. 2021, the city leased the space in response to the pandemic. The site has been used to create additional space for people to move indoors from encampments. It’s also slated to be closed by the end of the year.
As per a report from the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, an average of 63 people per night could not be matched to a shelter in April 2022. By October, the number jumped to approximately 186.
In the previous year, those numbers were at less than half of what they were projected at in 2022 — showing that the average number of unhoused people is on the rise.
Bethelihem Lemma is a manager at Homes First Society, a homeless shelter in Toronto. She agrees that there’s a huge demand for shelters in Toronto at the moment. But as data shows, it can be difficult to find accommodation for people. She said if a queue gets long, they send people away to another shelter location. But sometimes, they don’t get beds.
“I see that there’s a huge demand for it, and then we don’t have enough spaces to accommodate homes,” Lemma said.
Hotelling spaces, similar to 45 The Esplanade, could help keep people off the streets — if the city doesn’t close them down. Lorraine Lam, a Toronto-based community worker, said starting there is a good idea. But sometimes, the city doesn’t keep them open for long.
“They don’t need to close those, keep those open,” she said. “That’s one practical thing they could do.”
Lam also said that in order for affordable housing to be an option for those seeking it, all three levels of government must make a stride towards the issue. Affordable housing is not a priority to the mayor or the premier, according to Lam.
“They look at housing as a commodity and not actually as a human right,” she said.
Recently, a vacant lot at 214–230 Sherbourne St. was set to be expropriated – but the city was outbid by $3 million.
Lam said that’s a number that’s “pennies” compared to other projects the city invests in. “What they prioritize is the development of luxury condos … suburban architecture and big houses.”
What is the city doing right?
In 2020, a request by the city was put in to gain provincial and federal funding support in creating 3,000 affordable housing options. The Housing and Homelessness Recovery Response Plan promised to help create those homes over the course of 24 months.
Some of those promises were reached: this past November, Mayor John Tory announced the opening of 59 modular housing units at 540 Cedarvale Ave., with support included for those experiencing homelessness — a move he said is a “key priority.”
“Investing in innovative construction methods like this Modular Housing Initiative means that we can get more affordable, permanent, rental housing built faster and deliver it to the people who need it most,” he said in a statement.
Additionally, throughout 2021 approximately 111 supportive homes were acquired and converted from non-residential buildings. The following year, an additional 250 supportive homes were added to that roster.
The city stated in a press release that the majority of new housing will be created by the end of 2022. Through the Rapid Rehousing Initiative, which allowed vacancies to be made available to people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, an additional 550 homes allowed the city to reach a total of 1,000 homes over two years. But better short-term solutions could also be managed if the city offers them.
Lemma said respite programs (which shelter people for a 24-hour period) could help accommodate those who are turned away.
“Maybe opening temporary respite programs could be a solution for now,” she said.
Lemma said she regularly sees the same faces from shelter to shelter. Although the number of deaths has increased from homelessness, she said many are still facing the same issues. “Covid has in some way helped to house people from the streets, but the demand is still the same,” she said.
The Winter Services Plan states that 1,000 spaces will be used to expand capacity in existing shelters, as well as in the refugee-specific system and permanent affordable rental housing homes. Toronto will spend $647 million in order to fund emergency shelter and wraparound support.
In 2022, deaths of shelter residents are 88 and counting. At the moment, Lam points out that the situation is “steadily worsening,” especially during a time of inflation and the cost of living rising.
“There are a lot more people now who can’t afford to live,” she said. She also said that many people who are homeless are affected by the opioid crisis, a statistic that may be reflected in how people die in shelter systems across Toronto. In 2022 alone, drug toxicity contributes to the death of 54 per cent of those who die in shelters.
“There are things we can make very quick fixes to,” Lam points out. “Even social assistance, so people can afford housing; actually build housing and not just condos.”