Warming centres for homeless at Toronto churches ‘not a simple issue’

Local churches including St. Aidan's on Queen Street East in the Beach have been involved in Out of the Cold programs helping homeless people in the past. Photo by Alan Shackleton.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Having a warm environment in which to sleep at night should not be a politically debated topic. Or so thought many Torontonians upon discovering City Council’s decision to vote last week against the Board of Health’s recent recommendation to keep warming centres open overnight during the entire winter.

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Toronto Council instead voted 15-11 in favour of Scarborough Centre Councillor Michael Thompson’s amended recommendations to the Board of Health’s call regarding the warming centres.

(See Beach Metro Community News’ earlier story on the Board of Health’s recommendation at https://beachmetro.com/2023/01/27/with-cold-weather-on-the-way-toronto-urged-to-update-policies-on-opening-warming-centres-for-the-homeless/ )

Thompson called for City of Toronto staff to investigate how economically practical 24/7 respite services are for Toronto. He also called for Ontario’s government to require all large municipalities to provide shelter spaces proportionate to their population.

This, he said, is to deter those experiencing homelessness in other regions from migrating to Toronto in search of shelter.

“We also have refugees coming into this city that are compounding this challenge,” said Thompson. “We need to ensure that investments are made as well with respect to this subset of the refugee component as well as the homelessness in the city.”

One of the Board of Health members who introduced the initial motion, Spadina-Fort York Councillor Ausma Malik, disapproved of Thompson’s motion regarding the ongoing crisis.

“I just want to be clear that instead of responding to this crisis, listening to experts and saving lives, your amendment is amounting to us doing absolutely nothing more to actually address the serious urgency of the issue,” said Malik.

Many others also condemned Council’s decision, pointing to the recent news that the City of Toronto is willing to pour millions of dollars into increasing the police budget while showing little interest in addressing the immediate need of shelter for those stuck outside during cold winter nights.

Thompson, however, told his Council colleagues that the provincial and federal governments must do more to help municipalities dealing with homelessness.

“We are spending a significant sum of money,” said Thompson. “We note as well that the other levels of government are not contributing sufficiently.”

According to statistics presented at the meeting to Council, the provincial government spent $97 million on the housing crisis in 2022 while the federal government spent $72 million. The City of Toronto spent $457 million in the same year.

Toronto-St. Paul’s Councillor Josh Matlow, although agreeing that other levels of government need to do more, pointed out that the provincial government’s lack of assistance is no reason for the City of Toronto to neglect its own duties.

Matlow argued that granting people immediate, “predictable access to warm and safe spaces” that will save lives and prevent an impact on their health should be a priority while simultaneously negotiating with other levels of government for future funding.

This year, the City of Toronto has provided about 9,000 beds in shelter spaces. But as of the December 2022 update, stats show that there are 10,408 unhoused residents on the streets. This leaves hundreds with no place to go every winter night, emphasizing the importance of investing in warming centres.

Toronto currently has just four warming centres operating.

City staff estimated it would cost $400,000 to operate a single site for a month. Assuming it is open from the start of October until April, this would amount to an annual cost of about $2.4 million.

The City of Toronto is currently facing a shortfall of $1.2 billion in the 2023 budget, and Council is hesitant to put money into 24/7 respite services. That unwillingness is putting extra pressure on Toronto’s emergency services, councillors were told.

Medical professionals who addressed Council at last week’s meeting said that hospital emergency room resources are being strained in attempts to attend to those seeking refuge from cold weather.

They called for the City of Toronto to develop evidence-based criteria for the opening of warming spaces. The current weather threshold for warming centres to open is -15C (-20 with a wind chill). However, studies suggest that warming centres are needed well before temperatures drop that low.

Toronto’s Board of Health’s initial proposal asked for warming centres, which usually begin operating at 7 p.m. on the day of an alert, to open once temperatures reach zero degrees Celsius.

The City of Toronto, however, said in a press release that “more than half the times Warming Centres opened were at times where there was no Extreme Cold Weather Alert”.

“Other circumstances taken into consideration to activate Warming Centres include colder nighttime temperatures, forecasted wind chill values and inclement weather alerts,” read the statement.

Another motion proposed by Eglinton-Lawrence Councillor Mike Colle also passed at the Feb. 8 Council meeting. Colle asked city staff to contact faith leaders about using churches, mosques, and other places of worship as warming centres.

Michael Van Dusen, a member of the Beaches-East York Interfaith Coalition who was involved in the Out of the Cold Program, told Beach Metro Community News that even though churches would be happy to help provide shelter for those in need, there are a lot of logistics involved that first need to be addressed.

“Like other facilities, churches have operations,” said Van Dusen. “We have a school that uses our facility. We have church services, we have meetings.”

He explained that religious establishments, such as his own congregation at St. Aidan Anglican Church on Queen Street East in the Beach where he is a deacon, are not available all the time so a church shelter program as the main solution to the warming centre situation would require a lot of coordination.

“It’s not a simple issue,” said Van Dusen. “It’s not a matter of good guys and bad guys. This is something that we all as a community have to work together to resolve.”

Toronto Council has requested each member to make efforts to identify locations in their respective wards that can serve as warming centres.

City staff is set to report back to the Economic and Community Development Committee on April 25 about the possibility of round-the-clock services for the warming centres next winter.

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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