By AMARACHI AMADIKE
As colder months approach, warming shelters in the City of Toronto have once again become a high priority amongst concerned residents who have watched the shelter system struggle over the past year.
With Toronto now identifying almost double the amount of newly homeless people as it does people who have moved to permanent housing, statistics paint a dire portrait of a city struggling to keep up with gradually increasing homelessness as winter approaches.
In preparation for the cold weather, the city recently announced its 2023/24 Winter Services Plan which revealed plans to provide an additional 180 spaces in shelters, 24-hour respite support service with a capacity of 40 people, as well as “creating up to 275 housing opportunities through new supportive homes and available social housing units with supports”, according to an Oct. 18 news release.
The supportive homes enable the City of Toronto to move people experiencing homelessness from the shelter system into more stable, permanent housing.
Based on figures for the second quarter of 2023, the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration’s year-end forecast is now $741.5 million to provide total emergency shelter and wrap-around supports for people experiencing homelessness.
“Despite creating more than 650 spaces, we know there will be significant challenges in the coming months as we face an unprecedented and increasing demand for shelter and housing in our city,” said Mayor Olivia Chow in the news release. “We continue to call on the federal and provincial governments to step up with funding and support so that we can provide vital services to all who need it.”
In the last three months, there has steadily been more than 10,000 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. September alone saw 1,084 people enter the shelter system – 841 of which were newly identified as homeless with the remainder returning after short stints in permanent housing.
At the same time, 831 people have left the shelter system in the past month, however, according to the City of Toronto statistics, only 348 of those moved to permanent housing. The rest, it is assumed, have fallen back into life on the streets.
Come this winter, those individuals will now have to rely on Toronto’s four warming centre locations (136 Spadina Rd.; 75 Elizabeth St.;15 Olive Ave.; and 885 Scarborough Golf Club Rd.) to keep warm through harsher temperatures.
Although previous winters had a weather threshold of -15C, or -20 with a wind chill, before warming centres could open, services this year begin anytime temperatures reach -5C. That is considered a major improvement in the temperature threshold, and came about following city staff recommendations in an April report.
During a Feb. 8 Toronto Council meeting, another motion proposed by Eglinton-Lawrence Councillor Mike Colle asked faith leaders to allow the City of Toronto to use churches, mosques and other places of worship as warming spaces.
Beaches-East York Councillor Brad Bradford told Beach Metro Community News that he was unsuccessful in his own attempts to get such assistance.
“In an effort to be better prepared for the 2024 winter season, last spring my office reached out to congregations within Beaches-East York that had strong track records of service and are known to have onsite facilities that meet the city’s requirements for warming centres,” said Bradford. “However, they were unable to commit to being able to host this service.”
Bradford said many faith leaders were unable to provide assistance because warming centres require specialized staffing and facilities in order to ensure an adequate level of service due to the “high-needs clients” that utilize warming spaces.
“Some leaders we spoke to were concerned about being able to meet those conditions,” said Bradford. “Others said they would not be interested but did not give specific reasons, while some we contacted did not respond.”
Last winter, another motion was also moved asking councillors to join University-Rosedale Councillor Dianne Saxe in identifying available locations in their own wards where a warming or respite centre could be opened.
Surprisingly, this matter was never brought back to the public forum as councillors, according to Bradford, weren’t required to report back with their findings on potential locations.
Although this motion holds high importance to the public, councillors were only obligated to “notify the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration of the locations they have identified”.
It is currently unknown which councillors, if any, provided locations that would be used as respite spaces.
Asked whether he had identified a location in Beaches-East York, Bradford said that he has communicated to staff “in the past” that he would be “supportive of using a facility like the East York Civic Centre to provide a larger, more centralized warming shelter location here in the East End.”
However, the feasibility of this suggestion, he admitted, would depend on the “determination of the General Manager, Shelter, Support & Housing Administration, and subject to budget approval and availability of staffing.”
Considering that the East York Civic Centre is located on the west side of Coxwell Avenue, just outside of the Beaches-East York ward, Bradford said it would likely also require the support of Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher.
In a statement sent to Beach Metro Community News, Fletcher said she is supportive of the use of the East York Civic Centre as a warming facility.
“The Winter Services Plan is a critical part of the city’s efforts to ensure all our residents are safe and warm during the winter months. I have always supported the East York Civic Centre being utilized if identified by staff as a useful location,” said Fletcher.
“I have also recommended a number of additional locations in Ward 14 (Toronto-Danforth) for consideration and would support any site that offers a safe, warm, clean, accessible and welcoming space to those in need,” she said.
— 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.