With cold weather on the way, Toronto urged to update policies on opening warming centres for the homeless

A shelter set up in a doorway of an empty building on Gerrard Street East near Main Street can be seen in this photo taken on the morning of Friday, Jan. 27. Photo by Alan Shackleton.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Toronto Board of Health recently passed a motion that addresses current policies which are negatively impacting the city’s homeless population during the coldest winter days.

Davenport Councillor Alejandra Bravo, along with Spadina-Fort York Councillor Ausma Malik and Parkdale-High Park Councillor Gord Perks, introduced a motion to implement 24/7 respite spaces, including warming centres, from now until April 15.

With more severe winter weather now moving into the city, including what is expected to be some very cold days in February, the motion has taken on increased importance.

The Board of Health’s decision came after a joint press conference with representatives from Health Providers Against Poverty (HPAP) and the Shelter Housing and Justice Network (SHJN) who also demanded an end to encampment evictions in Toronot, an increase in rent-geared-to-income housing units, and an increase in non-congregate shelter beds across the city.

The main discussion, however, surrounded requests for a commitment from Toronto Council to change the current weather requirements needed for the city’s warming centres to open to the homeless community.

At the moment, the weather threshold for warming centres to open sits at -15C, or -20 with a wind chill.

Many healthcare providers and frontline workers, such as Greg Cook who works with the Shelter Housing and Justice Network (SHJN), have expressed outrage at the neglect shown towards individuals experiencing homelessness as warming centres are needed at far warmer temperatures according to medical evidence.

“We do know that the average life expectancy is below 50 in Toronto for people that aren’t housed,” said Cook. “For women in the last two years, it’s been 35.”

Cook, who also volunteers for the Toronto Homeless Memorial, highlighted some stats that were analyzed by the organization.

“If you look at the city’s own stats, the year before John Tory started out as Mayor only 16 people died in the shelter system,” said Cook. “The stats just came out for last year—2022—and the number was 110. That’s a massive increase.”

(See the City of Toronto’s report on deaths of shelter residents at https://www.toronto.ca/city-government/data-research-maps/research-reports/housing-and-homelessness-research-and-reports/deaths-of-shelter-residents/ )

While those numbers of shelter residents’ deaths are not correlated to extreme weather, Cook believes they are a result of unfavourable policies by Toronto Council.

“A lot of people are dying,” said Cook. “I think people need to know that and we need to do something different than what we’re currently doing.

Although the motion to address the policies in question—which passed by a narrow margin—asked for warming centres to be available through April, SHJN believes they should be open all winter due to special circumstances such as freezing rain during non-extreme temperatures.

There are currently only three warming centres available for Toronto’s homeless. They are located at Metro Hall, 55 John St.; the Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Dr.; and Mitchell Field Community Centre, 89 Church Ave. in North York.

Unfortunately for those seeking shelter, these warming centres are quite a distance from each other. Especially for individuals who don’t have money to take transit and may be required to walk between one to three hours to the next location.

In an open letter addressed to Toronto Council and signed by more than 1,500 people, community members depicted concern about data that shows at least five people died of cold weather related injuries last year and another one so far this winter.

“These deaths are preventable,” read the letter. “These hypothermia and freezing related deaths are preventable. Cold-related injuries, like frostbite, which can lead to permanent disfigurement, loss of life and limb, disability, and serious complications such as sepsis are also preventable.”

The letter demanded that warming centres open once temperatures hit zero degrees Celsius, and for easier access to them for people in the downtown core.

“How the city chooses to spend its budget highlights its priorities,” the letter stated. “When we talk about investing in community safety, this will not come from increased policing. Rather, communities have safety when they have stability and access to basic human rights: housing, healthcare, sleep, food, and social support.”

It is estimated that 20,000 people cycle through Toronto’s shelter system yearly. According to the city’s data, more than 100 people are turned away from shelters and sleep outside every night.

With February around the corner and temperatures continuing to dip, the situation is becoming more concerning as more people experiencing homelessness across the city can be seen laying atop grates, soaking in any bit of warm air that flows through, and setting up make-shift shelters in other locations.

Others seek refuge in businesses, subway stations if they can get inside them, and any other space that they can temporarily find warmth.

During the Economic and Community Development Committee (ECDC) meeting earlier this month, Dr. Caroyln Snider, Chief of Emergency Medicine at St Michael’s Hospital, revealed that numerous downtown emergency departments in Toronto are seeing more individuals coming to the emergency department due to lack of shelter beds and warming spaces. This has put an added strain on an already struggling medical system.

She, along with other healthcare and frontline workers, urged Toronto councillors to reconsider policies regarding homelessness.

The Board of Health’s motion is scheduled for consideration at Toronto Council’s next meeting on Feb. 7.

Amarachi Amadike is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro Community News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.



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