Toronto revealed details of its winter plan for people experiencing homelessness on Tuesday, saying it will provide about 560 new spaces through a combination of shelter beds, 24-hour respite beds, hotel programs and supportive housing units.
In a news release on Tuesday, the city said the new spaces, which will be available between November and April, are an increase from last year, when 485 spaces were offered. Additional space will be available at warming centres during extreme cold weather alerts.
Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of the city's shelter, support and housing administration, said the 2020-21 winter services plan took months to put together and is being released two weeks earlier than it was last year. This is the fifth year that the city has released such a plan.
Bedard said the plan offers a variety of different services to appeal to people living outdoors, but the city faced additional challenges in preparing the plan because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This year, we did have to apply the COVID lens to make sure that everything that we were offering is safe in terms of virus spread," Bedard told CBC Toronto News at 6 anchor Dwight Drummond in an interview on Tuesday.
According to Toronto Public Health, 649 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in cases linked to shelter outbreaks in Toronto as of Sept. 27. Five people who used shelters in Toronto have died of COVID-19 as of Sept. 29.
Bedard estimates that Toronto has about 6,700 people experiencing homelessness in its shelter system and that there are about 500 people living outdoors in encampments.
What happens to the encampments during the cold winter months is a concern for the city, she said.
"We want to make sure, should they choose to come inside, when the weather gets cold, that we have a variety of spaces to offer them," she said.
WATCH| CBC Toronto News at 6 anchor Dwight Drummond interviews Mary-Anne Bedard from the City of Toronto:
In the news release, Bedard said: "While the best solution to homelessness is permanent housing with supports, the winter plan will ensure we can continue to provide emergency services for those in immediate crisis and to protect people from both the risks of COVID-19 and cold weather."
Mayor John Tory said in the release that the city is doing everything it can to help its most vulnerable residents.
"The winter services plan will start earlier this year to ensure we have the space and resources we need to act quickly once the cold weather hits," Tory said.
Plan includes spaces at CNE's Better Living Centre
According to the city, the new spaces include the following:
- 100 respite site spaces at the CNE's Better Living Centre.
- 150 beds in hotel programs.
- 90 hotel beds as a replacement for the Out of the Cold program.
The city said it will also create capacity in its existing shelter system with the introduction of about 220 new supportive housing units, including two new modular housing sites.
In addition to the 560 new spaces, the city said it will continue to provide 200 beds in its existing shelter system that were available last winter and 221 spaces in its existing 24-hour respite sites that remain open year round.
In the event of a extreme cold weather alert, the city said it will make additional services available, including about 150 spaces at four warming centres across the city.
Streets to Homes staff to hand out blankets, sleeping bags
The city's Streets to Homes program, meanwhile, will increase its mobile street outreach to connect with people living outside and encourage them to come indoors. Staff will also hand out blankets and sleeping bags.
This is the first year that the city has made available more than one warming centre.
"All services identified under the 2020-2021 winter plan have been considered from the lens of providing safer services during the pandemic," the city said in the release.
"In particular, in consultation with infection control experts, the city will be piloting the use of impermeable barriers between beds in congregate sleeping areas or double occupancy rooms in order to provide an additional measure of protection from the spread of COVID-19," the city added.
"These barriers will be implemented in addition to the two-metre lateral distancing between beds required by the current shelter standards directive."
Out of the Cold program 'remains unfeasible'
The Out of the Cold program, administered by Dixon Hall, formerly offered meals and overnight shelter during the winter to unhoused people in different locations every night. But after the pandemic hit, the program closed in March. The city said the program "remains unfeasible" to operate within health ministry guidelines for congregate settings.
A replacement program, operated by Dixon Hall, will provide what the city calls "replacement shelter capacity" in former hotels 24 hours a day and seven days a week during winter.
The winter plan is part of the city's interim shelter recovery and infrastructure implementation plan, which outlines measures needed over the next 12 months to protect unhoused people and to continue to provide shelter services while COVID-19 remains a concern, the city said.