Toronto’s homeless community and their supporters are demanding a better plan from the city for the coming winter.
The Shelter Housing Justice Network, which represents members of the homeless community and those who work with them, issued a report Tuesday with recommendations that it said could help the city improve on past plans for the colder months.
The group wants the city to extend leases it holds on hotels that are used to house the homeless during the pandemic.
It also wants the city to allow the homeless to camp in public spaces.
“The city must repeal the no-camping bylaw,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries Toronto. “People have the right to exist.”
Homeless encampments popped up throughout the city when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Hundreds fled shelters for fear of contracting the virus.
The city won a court battle last year that upheld its powers to enact and enforce the no-camping bylaw. This past summer, the city cleared three encampments in public parks, some by force with the police riot squad.
The city said Tuesday the encampments were not safe and illegal.
“The city cannot force people to come inside and avail themselves of the many services offered by the city, but living in an encampment in a city park or right-of-way is not permitted,” said city spokesman Anthony Toderian.
The city said it has moved nearly 7,300 people to permanent housing from the shelter system in the time since the pandemic hit and August this year.
The overdose crisis in the province is also hitting the homeless at a much higher rate than the general public.
On Tuesday, advocates added 16 names — many John Does — to a memorial for homeless people who have died on the streets and in shelters during August and September.
“We are in the middle of an escalating overdose crisis,” Cook said at the memorial outside the Holy Trinity church. “Our loved ones and friends are dying. Half of the people who die without housing die of drug toxicity — this is alarming and must be addressed.”
Jennifer Jewell, who lived in an encampment before taking the city’s offer to move into a shelter hotel downtown 10 months ago, said safe housing should be the city’s highest priority.
“We need housing now, people need to be provided safe spaces to heal, they need homes,” Jewell said.
While shelter hotels provide a room, she said the city needs to offer more harm reduction services because she’s seen many die in her hotel alone. She said it took the city 11 months to set up a peer-support program to help with overdoses.
“Please help us,” Jewell said. “Police are no solution.”
Jewell said she has no idea how long she can stay at the hotel the city has leased despite constantly asking officials.
The city said it “continues to explore appropriate options” to ensure vulnerable residents have access to safe indoor shelter space and that it plans to “continue current response efforts” until at least the end of the year.
“Most hotel providers have indicated willingness to extend leases to at least April 2022 to mitigate the need for transitions during the winter,” Toderian added.
The city’s winter services plan will be shared in early November, Toderian said, and will include details on 24-hour respite centres and warming centres that will be activated when extreme cold-weather alerts are issued.