Toronto needs help from federal and provincial governments to open more warming centres longer, says staff report

A shelter along Gerrard Street East in East Toronto is shown in this Beach Metro News file photo from January of 2023. Photo by Alan Shackleton.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A City of Toronto staff report, set to be presented to the Economic and Community Development Committee on Tuesday, April 25, has recommended slightly revised criteria for opening warming centres next winter.

Following much debate this past February as a result of the Toronto’s Board of Health’s proposal for warming centres to be activated once temperatures reach zero degrees Celsius, Toronto Council suggested that staff review the current warming centre procedures.

Although the Board of Health’s initial proposal was rejected, councillors instead voted 15-11 in favour of Scarborough Centre Councillor Michael Thompson’s recommendation that staff investigate how feasible 24/7 respite services are for Toronto.

Upon review, city staff have concluded that Extreme Cold Weather Alerts (ECWA) should not be needed in order for warming centres to open. They are recommending that respite facilities need to open when temperatures hits -5, falling a little short of the Board of Health’s initial demand.

“Based on the evidence reviewed, as well as the advice of health experts, the report proposes revising criteria for activating Warming Centres from -15 degrees Celsius to -5 degrees Celsius and/or when Environment and Climate Change Canada issues freezing rain, snow squall, winter storm, snowfall and/or blizzard warnings,” stated a City of Toronto news release on Tuesday, April 18.

The staff report also suggested that that the city consolidates warming centre activations into “a single process determined by the City’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration team”.

However, in the face of Toronto’s pressing financial challenges—which includes a $317 million gap for COVID-19 response funding for shelters, and a $97 million current funding requirement for shelter for refugee claimants—the report appears to have mimicked Thompson’s February response to the situation in which he suggested that the City of Toronto requires more assistance from both the federal and provincial governments to deal with the issue.

According to the April 18 press release, implementation of any of the actions suggested by city staff is still “subject to available space, staffing and budget”.

Toronto’s 2023 budget allocates $16.2 million for Winter Services Response which allows Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) to provide 419 beds between Jan. 1 and April 15;  and Nov. 15 and Dec. 31 of this year.

The report states that these costs are part of the city’s intergovernmental request for $317 million in COVID-19 funding and “if required is supported by the City’s one-time 2023 back stop strategy.”

“The City’s emergency provisions will fully exhaust the City’s one-time backstop strategy and funds will no longer be available for other ongoing commitments, COVID-19 impacts or service delivery in 2024,” read the report.

Currently, without funding commitments from the federal and provincial governments, there will be no funds allocated for Warming Centre spaces starting n Jan. 1, 2024. This essentially reverts the warming centre conversation to square one.

“Therefore, the staff report recommends that Council request $5 million in funding from the federal and provincial governments to continue the delivery of these services beyond December 31, 2023,” said city staff.

In February, the City of Toronto estimated that it would cost about $400,000 to operate one round-the-clock warming centre for a single month. The requested $5 million, according to city staff, will enable the operation of one warming centre location on a 24/7 basis, “as well as additional weather-based Warming Centre spaces in January to April 2024 and November to December 2024”.

It is currently unclear what the capacity of such a warming centre will be as Toronto’s homeless population steadily increases. In the last three months, there have been 10,811 people actively homeless according to City of Toronto statistics.

Although March saw 1,463 people move to permanent housing, it also saw 2,479 newly identified homeless people to its streets—about 800 more than the previous month.

Still, at least one councillor was hopeful about the recent staff reports and how they might help the City of Toronto move forward in helping those who are homeless.

“This plan serves as an important first step in helping more people access safe, warm spaces in our winter months. Staff will continue to work to secure additional warming centre sites, expand access to our existing sites, and advance our housing goals so homelessness in our city becomes a rare and brief experience,” said Don Valley North Councillor and Chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee, Shelley Carroll, the city’s news release.

The report is expected to be discussed at Toronto Council’s May meeting.

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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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