Toronto adds 1,000 spaces to shelter system as winter approaches

Gord Tanner, the general manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, says the City of Toronto will add 1,000 spaces to its system during the coming winter months. Half of those — 500 spaces — will be created in existing shelters by changing the distance between beds.  (Tina Mackenzie/CBC - image credit)
Gord Tanner, the general manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, says the City of Toronto will add 1,000 spaces to its system during the coming winter months. Half of those — 500 spaces — will be created in existing shelters by changing the distance between beds. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC - image credit)

The City of Toronto is expanding its shelter system as winter approaches, stressing that the need for beds continues to grow while the resources to fund them remain strained.

The city will add 1,000 spaces to its system during the coming winter months to help house more than 9,000 people this winter — something that will bring the city's spending on emergency housing and supports to $647 million, says general manager of Toronto's shelter, support and housing administration division, Gord Tanner.

That includes $82 million more than anticipated to pay for its COVID-19 response and a lack of federal funding to support an increasing number of refugee claimants, he says. Currently, just over a quarter of people in the city's shelter system are refugee claimants, with between 60 and 90 new people arriving each week, he said.

"Despite continuing to add beds, the ever increasing pressure on the shelter system, which is at capacity most nights, continues," he said.

"The reality is that simply adding additional beds to the system is a short-term emergency solution that is not sustainable."

Despite the price tag, the change is needed. Toronto's shelter system currently serves over 8,200 people daily and is regularly at capacity according to the city , turning away nearly 170 people a day. It currently serves 1,600 people more a night than at this time of year in 2021, continuing a trend of increased homelessness in the city.

Reducing distance between beds

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, beds in congregate shelters were separated by two metres. That will change to 1.25 metres in the coming weeks as part of the city's plan to increase capacity, says Tanner, stressing that the change is safe according to experts with the province and Toronto Public Health.

"As much as COVID-19 continues to be an on-going public health concern, health experts agree that extreme cold presents an even greater risk to the health and wellness of those living outdoors," said Tanner.

In addition to changes in the shelter system, the city says it will also add 60 spaces at warming centres during extreme cold weather. It says Metro Hall and the Scarborough Civic Centre will serve as sites for those emergency shelters.

The Shelter and Housing Justice Network says putting beds closer together will make conditions worse and lead to outbreaks of infectious diseases.

"Congregate shelter settings led to poor health outcomes," nurse practitioner and network member Jessica Hales said in a release.

"Factors within congregate facilities like poor privacy, bug infestations, inadequate sleep surfaces like mats on floors, noise and outbreaks of COVID and other infectious diseases make it difficult for people to maintain their health in these types of environments," she added.

What advocates want instead

The advocates are demanding that the city end the planned closure of shelter motels and stop evictions of people living in encampments.

The city has 25 shelter motels and is planning to close one at a Novotel Hotel in downtown Toronto when its lease concludes at the end of the year, leaving over 231 without housing — something the city says it's working to address.

Greg Cook, an outreach worker and member of the network, expressed scepticism about the city's claim that it was adding 1,000 new spaces, and said much of the expansion was promised earlier this year.

The city may actually be adding as few as 230 new beds, he said, pointing to the new spots for single persons and hotel rooms for single refugees and their families, which is part of the city's calculations.

The group says it will be gathering outside of Mayor John Tory's office Tuesday to call on him and city council to do more to prevent homeless deaths this winter. The group says the city must immediately add 2,000 non-congregate spaces to the shelter system.

"The situation is getting worse and yet the city's cutting things ... they're closing the Novotel, taking beds away, it's just really concerning to us," Cook said.