TORONTO — Derrick Black just wants a place to call home before winter arrives.
The man who has been living in a tent at a downtown Toronto park since the end of March said the city urgently needs to find safe residences for people in encampments before colder weather sets in.
"I would love to have a home before winter," said Black. "That's what I want for everybody here, a key so they can go in and out of their home whenever they want."
Since the pandemic began, many people have fled Toronto's notoriously crowded shelters for fear of catching COVID-19 and said they felt safer living outdoors.
Homeless advocates were calling attention Wednesday night to the situation Black and others have found themselves in with a march to point out vacant buildings that could be used to house the homeless.
Jeff Bierk, a volunteer with the Encampment Support Network, said without immediate action people will die.
The group has been providing basic necessities such as water, food, clothes, tents and sleeping bags to those living in camps, but the cold weather presents different challenges, he said.
The city has promised to announce details of a plan for the homeless soon.
"An implementation plan for the interim shelter recovery strategy will be brought to council in October that addresses the specific actions needed over the next 12 months, including as the weather gets cooler, to continue to be ensure the shelter system is prepared to respond to the pandemic," said Mary-Anne Bedard, the general manager of the city's shelter, support and housing administration.
She said services will be available by Nov. 15.
In the meantime, the city has moved about 2,000 people into new shelters, hotels and community spaces and have moved more than 2,000 into permanent housing — a 50 per cent increase from the same time last year, Bedard said.
But some, like Black, do not want to move into a hotel. He said he's holding out for permanent housing.
"There you have to do what they say, it's not a home, it's more like jail," Black said. "I want come and go and nobody can tell me when and where to come and go."
Malcolm Kennedy lives in a shelter and came out to Wednesday night's march to support all those who are underhoused.
"The whole system has to change because living in shelters is hell, but it's too expensive to live anywhere else."
The city has bought or leased more than 30 buildings since the pandemic began earlier this year, but they are scattered throughout the city with many of them far from social services, advocates note.
"We've seen people get kicked out for curfew violations or smoking weed in their room and some who just say 'this person is not a fit for this program' and they're kicked out," Bierk said.
Several shelters throughout the city have been subject to vitriol and protests from residents who complain crime has increased in those areas.
On Tuesday, two top city officials recommended a 24-month plan to address homelessness that includes 3,000 affordable rental and supportive homes. They said the funding for the plan should come from the federal and provincial governments.
Earlier in the week the federal government said it would provide $1.2 billion to cities across the country for modular homes.
But Bierk said he's worried the money won't come soon enough for Toronto's homeless.
"We supported people through a heat wave by providing water and ice, but winter comes with a lot of fear," he said.
"There are going to be people that are going to die and that's the reality of it."
In July, a number of people living in tents, including Black, as well as homeless advocates sued the city, arguing a Toronto bylaw banning camping in city parks should be declared unconstitutional given the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group alleged the city's threats to evict them violated their rights. The city has temporarily halted evictions in the wake of the suit until the application is heard. The two sides are in court next week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press