Toronto joins other Ontario cities in declaring homelessness an emergency

A shelter made of blankets is shown on Gerrard Street East in East Toronto in this Beach Metro Community News file photo.

By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Toronto City Council has applied pressure on the provincial and federal government by officially declaring homelessness an emergency.

On Friday, May 12, Council voted 24-1 in favour of recommendations by the Economic and Community Development Committee which also included demands for additional support from other levels of government.

“I thank our partners in other orders of government for previous commitments that have been honoured,” said Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie in a news release on May 12. “But more needs to be done together – with our community partners – to ensure that those in need have access to shelter, housing and health support.”

Council recommended that the federal and provincial governments provide $5 million to the City of Toronto for the activation of additional warming centres for next winter.

Councillors also requested an additional $20 million in Canada-Ontario Housing Benefits in 2023-2024 “to allow the City to proceed in helping an additional 1,600 to 2,000 households”.

This, they said, will enable city staff to transition people experiencing homelessness out of the shelter system and into permanent housing when the current funding is exhausted and the City of Toronto loses the ability to support additional households.

Council’s motion has been seen largely as a symbolic gesture in the eyes of many as it doesn’t obligate the other levels of government to provide the requested funds.

“Additional support from other orders of government is critically needed to ensure the continued delivery of these services,” said the May 12 news release. “In the absence of added funding commitments, no money will be available to open and operate warming centres starting Jan. 1, 2024.”

According to the City of Toronto, it provided shelter and support to more than 20,700 people in 2022, helping more than 4,300 of those to eventually move from the shelter system into permanent housing.

So far this year, there has been an addition of 1,000 more spaces, however, the City of Toronto says demand continues to grow despite adding capacity. City data states that 10,515 have been actively homeless over the past three months. Last month, there were 3,245 newly identified homeless people in Toronto, almost a thousand more than the previous month.

Currently, the City of Toronto can provide overnight emergency accommodation to approximately 9,000 people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to the declaration of a state of emergency, Toronto Council also adopted a recommendation regarding the criteria for activating warming centres.

Although prioritizing the opening of 24/7 respite centres is highly dependent on “available space, staffing and budget”, warming spaces are now to open once temperatures dip to -5 degrees Celsius or if Environment and Climate Change Canada issues warnings for freezing rain, snow squall, winter storm, snowfall or blizzards.

City staff are expected to report back to the Economic and Community Development Committee in September with the status of the funding requested from other levels of government and “offer a strategy to fund the opening of additional warming centres prior to the 2024 budget.”

Toronto is now the fourth Ontario city to declare homelessness as a state of emergency. Hamilton, Fort Erie and Ottawa have all previously made similar declarations.

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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