Man killed in fire at Toronto homeless encampment, advocates call for change

·3 min read

TORONTO — A fire at an encampment in downtown Toronto left a man dead Wednesday morning and renewed calls for changes to the way the city treats its homeless residents.

Toronto Fire deputy chief Jim Jessop said the fire occurred around 6 a.m. in Orphan's Green park. He said an wooden structure was engulfed in flames when crews arrived.

"There are fire- and life-safety risks associated with these types of structures and these types of activities when living outside," Jessop told reporters.

Police have not identified the man who died in the fire, which a spokesman with the Office of the Fire Marshal said is being investigated.

Jessop said there was a 250 per cent increase in fires at encampments in 2020 compared to 2019. The city said there were 249 fires in encampments last year and one man died in a tent fire. There have been 27 encampment fires thus far this year, the city said.

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, said many people living outside have nowhere to go.

"This is a huge failure by the city," Lam said.

"These encampments are last resorts, no one is celebrating living outside and this points to the deeper issue of the housing inaffordability crisis."

Encampments have popped up throughout the city since the pandemic hit last year. Hundreds left the shelters for fear of catching COVID-19 and many do not want to return.

Last year, the city said it helped move 1,300 people in from the streets and more than 3,200 people have been permanently housed from the shelter system.

Advocates say there are about 1,000 people living outdoors, while the city said it recently counted about 300 tents or structures.

"What we really need is more housing," Lam said.

Mayor John Tory said hundreds of supportive housing units, where people can access mental health and addiction services, will be available later this year with funding from the federal government.

"We (also) have thousands of affordable units in the pipeline, some under construction, some almost ready for occupancy, that we didn't have two years ago," Tory said.

"We have this as the top issue after the pandemic, I would say, in the entire city.,"

Lam said the recent cold snap has left those living outside with few options to warm up.

On Tuesday night, the temperature hit a low of -16C at 3 a.m., according to Environment Canada.

While the city has four warming centres, Lam said they don't usually open until 7 p.m., which discourages many from going.

She said some of the homeless in encampments had been warming up at Union Station downtown, but were recently told by security to leave.

Benches and chairs have also been removed from the transit hub, which Lam said was a move to discourage the homeless from gathering there.

City spokesman Brad Ross said seating has been removed at Union Station to ensure physical distancing is maintained.

"Everyone is welcome at Union Station, but like any public space, the city has an obligation to ensure those spaces are safe for all," Ross said.

Mary-Anne Bedard, the city's general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, said municipal workers visited Orphan's Park around 2 a.m. last night to see if anyone wanted to leave the encampment and go somewhere warm, but they did not get a response.

"It is important to note our Streets to Homes teams were out all night long," she said.

"They had 73 interactions with people who were staying outside, and 10 of those people accepted assistance."

There are seven shelters in with COVID-19 outbreaks with 115 people testing positive for the virus. A COVID-19 variant has recently made its way inside a shelter, the city said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2021.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press