Toronto plans to make an additional 560 beds available to the homeless this winter but advocates warn the spots won't be enough for the growing number of people living in encampments across the city since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The increase in beds — 100 of which will be at an exhibition centre, with plastic barriers to prevent the spread of the virus — is part of the city's winter plan for the homeless outlined earlier this week.
Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of Toronto's shelter, support and housing administration, said the city believes it will have enough beds to house those who want to get inside during the cold months.
There will be 240 hotel rooms among the new spaces, along with 220 spots in shelters that will become available when the same number of people move into new homes, including two new modular housing projects, Bedard said.
"This year, more than ever, we wanted to make sure we were offering a range of different types of services so we can hit as many people we could with a service that they would be comfortable in accepting," she said.
But Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, said the city's plan falls short.
"It's a really inadequate response," he said.
"There are encampments everywhere and they're growing — we think over 1,000 people are outside and this only has space for 560."
Cook also raised concerns about the 100 new beds the city plans to place in one building on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. COVID-19 has been known to spread easily in congregate settings.
Bedard said the beds at the respite centre will have L-shaped Plexiglas barriers to help keep people safe.
Cathy Crowe, a longtime street nurse and homeless advocate, said the city's plan to use plastic barriers between beds is problematic.
"This will give a false sense of security that they're going to be safe from COVID-19," she said.
Cook added that it seemed odd that Toronto's medical officer of health has asked the province to shut down in-person dining at restaurants while the city approved a plan to have 100 people sleep in a large room.
"Why is it not ok for people dining, but it is ok for people sleeping?" Cook said. "They know it’s not ok."
As of Monday, there have been 650 cases of COVID-19 in Toronto shelters, including seven active cases, and five deaths.
Dozens of encampments have popped up throughout the city since the pandemic began as people fled shelters for fear of COVID-19.
The city's Streets To Homes team has counted about 400 tents across the city, Bedard said — a number advocates question.
Bedard added it's very difficult to get an accurate number of those living outside if they haven't used any city service.
"Every neighbourhood is experiencing increased levels of homelessness that are much more visible in their communities," she said.
The city has undergone a massive rehoming initiative in order to depopulate shelters to allow for proper physical distancing inside. They've bought or leased 30 buildings and hotels and have moved about 4,000 people out of shelters since the pandemic began.
They have also moved about 900 people out of encampments into various types of housing, Bedard said.
Lambrina Nikolaou, the director of adult community programs with West Neighbourhood House, which runs a drop-in program for the homeless, said the city should be commended for its efforts through the pandemic.
But she also cautioned that a certain number of people in encampments will not want to stay in a hotel or shelter due to a variety of factors, including being taken away from services such as harm reduction resources.
"We need to meet people where they're at to keep them safe and healthy," she said.
Nikolaou said the city should listen to the needs of those living in the encampments and implement some of the recommendations from a coroner's inquest into the death of Grant Faulkner, who died in 2015 in Toronto after his shed caught fire while he was using a propane-powered stove to keep warm.
Those recommendations included the city providing survival equipment such as sleeping bags and safe heat sources.
The city is currently defending itself against two lawsuits brought by the homeless and their advocates. One is to ensure proper physical distancing in the shelters while the other is challenging a city bylaw that doesn't allow camping in parks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press