homeless toronto

People are going after Toronto politicians for failing to protect the homeless

As many as 18,000 people are now estimated to be experiencing homelessness on any given night in Toronto, where extreme cold temperatures like those recorded last weekend can induce frostbite within minutes and kill humans without sufficient protection.

This in mind, residents of Canada's largest city were horrified to learn on Feb. 3 — as wind chill values dipped to a dangerous - 30 C — that shelters were being forced to turn away clients due to capacity restrictions.

The sad reality is that Toronto's shelter system simply can't support everyone who needs it — and the crunch, compounded by what appears to be a fast-growing population of under-housed people in an increasingly unaffordable market, is only worsening as officials shut down pandemic-era shelter hotels.

Temporary warming centres, several of which are opened by the city every time an extreme cold weather alert is declared (and only under those circumstances), are thus more essential than ever when it comes to protecting vulnerable people from freezing to death.

And yet, in a move that confounded many this week, Toronto City Council voted against a Board of Health-approved proposal to expand indoor warming locations and extend their hours until spring.

"The City of Toronto is facing a sharp increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. Toronto's shelter system is unable to support the number of residents in need, placing extra pressures on the city's drop-in and warming centres," reads a letter presented at City Hall for consideration on Feb. 8.

Put forward by councillors Ausma Malik, Alejandra Bravo and Gord Perks, based on work by advocacy groups including the Shelter Housing and Justice Network and Health Providers Against Poverty, the letter recommended that city council declare a public health crisis in response to the "systemic failure of all three levels of government to provide adequate 24-hour, drop-in and respite indoor spaces."

It also urged council to approve the provision of safe, accessible, 24/7 indoor warming locations until April 15, 2023, whether by using the city's own four warming centres or using locations provided by community organizations.

After hearing that it would cost the city about $400,000 a month per centre to operate 24/7, council rejected the aforementioned recommendation in a 15-11 vote.

The group instead adopted a motion from Coun. Michael Thompson to effectively ask the federal and provincial governments for money to help address homelessness.

In typical Toronto fashion, council also approved asking the head of the city's shelter and housing administration to report back on report on the feasibility of keeping warming centres open 24/7 throughout the winter months.

Staff are expected to report back at the end of April, by which point winter will be nearly over and, as some argue, lives will have been lost to municipal inaction.

Warming centres may only be a stop-gap solution to the homelessness crisis, but advocates say these temporary sites of refuge are absolutely critical when it comes to protecting the vulnerable.

At present, these indoor sites open only when temperatures are expected to drop below - 15 C or - 20 C with the windchill. Health professionals say this is not adequate.

"Our research shows that hypothermic events happen well above -15 degrees Celsius, and health can worsen in harsh conditions such as cold rain and snow," reads a statement from Unity Health Toronto published in January.

"In our hospitals, like others across the city, we are seeing an increasing number of people with cold-related injuries. Routinely, we care for people who are homeless and suffering direct complications of cold weather: hypothermia, frostbite, swelling, and infections, and exacerbation of pre-existing conditions."

Like Toronto's public transit system, Unity says that city hospitals are also "seeing many unhoused patients coming into our emergency departments simply looking for a space to shelter and get warm.

The city's own data shows that 110 people died in the shelter system in 2022 alone. Toronto Public Health estimates that an additional 92 homeless individuals died outside the shelter system last year, bringing the total number of deaths above 200.

"Ontario is facing a homelessness crisis that is leading to profound and devastating impacts on our communities," wrote the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) in a statement last week amplifying concerns about the "significant lack of cold weather services in Toronto" for people experiencing homelessness.

"When a person has nowhere to go in inclement weather, this can result in tragic outcomes such as the loss of a limb or freezing to death. These outcomes are preventable."

Clarifying once again that "the ability to provide adequate shelter for oneself" is a human right, the commission called upon all three levels of government to uphold this right for all by funding and providing "enough indoor spaces around-the-clock for anyone seeking shelter, either in warming centres or in community spaces."

"People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately members of groups and communities who have experienced historic and ongoing systemic discrimination. Governments at all levels must work to limit the ongoing effects of this discrimination," reads the OHRC statement.

"Keeping members of our community from freezing to death on the streets is part of that essential work."

Advocates who agree are now taking to Twitter in the wake of Wednesday's vote to put councillors who voted against the original proposal on blast.

"Remember who these *ssholes are in the next election. The ones who are voting to actively ignore and pretend the unhoused problem isn't a problem," tweeted one person when sharing an image of the vote's result.

"Watching Toronto Council play a repulsive game with human lives," wrote another. "A disgusting inhuman packet of husks, they are cheap, bitter, and cruel."

"Toronto voting against 24/7 access to warming centres for the unhoused shows a shocking disregard for basic human dignity," tweeted health policy researcher and advocate Ahmed Ali. "But remember: they spent nearly $2 million in one summer to clear encampments."

That, they did.

Lead photo by

Jeremy Gilbert

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