Toronto should declare a homelessness emergency, city council committee says

A tent under the Gardiner Expressway at Lake Shore Boulevard West and York Street on March 24, 2023.. See tent, fly and belongings under the road beside the on-ramp. Recent city data shows Toronto saw an average of more than three deaths per week among people experiencing homelessness last year, totaling 187 deaths in 2022.
A tent under the Gardiner Expressway at Lake Shore Boulevard West and York Street on March 24, 2023. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Toronto should declare a homelessness emergency, a city council committee decided on Tuesday.

The economic and community development committee, which met on Tuesday, unanimously approved a motion to ask the city to declare such an emergency. Coun. Paul Ainslie, who represents Ward 24, Scarborough-Guildwood, moved the motion.

Coun. Shelley Carroll, chair of the committee, said the motion is symbolic, but it should send a message about the urgency of the crisis in Toronto and the need to do better. According to the city’s own data, roughly 10,800 people were homeless in Toronto in the last three months.

In December 2021, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk said the Ontario government has no plan to reduce or prevent homelessness, and Carroll said the situation has not improved.

“If one day the premier wakes up to the fact that his own auditor general is telling him he needs an Ontario homeless strategy and right now he has none, if any of those things happen, I would love it if we could continue to converse over platforms and at rallies the same way we did in this room this morning,” Carroll said.

Carroll noted that on April 12, the city of Hamilton declared a state of emergency in its city related to homelessness, opioid addiction and mental health.

‘People just can’t afford housing in this city’

Greg Cook, a member of the steering committee of Shelter and Housing Justice Network and an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, urged the committee to pass the motion, saying the number of unhoused people who die in Toronto every year is deeply concerning. A total of 187 people died while unhoused in Toronto last year, according to city statistics.

“When I started as an outreach worker in 2010 and 2011, we’re talking maybe 30 people a year were dying. This is a massive increase. We’ve asked repeatedly for the city to declare an emergency,” he said.

“Repeatedly the city has asked the province and feds for additional money and they haven’t got what’s needed.”

Cook said a report by the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) that was considered by the committee fails to describe the severity of the homelessness crisis in Toronto. He said the city is continuing to close shelter hotels, which were opened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there is nowhere for people to go.

He said a declaration around homelessness is necessary because the situation is getting “much, much worse” every year.

“People just can’t afford housing in this city,” Cook said.

Greg Cook
Greg Cook, a member of the steering committee of Shelter and Housing Justice Network and an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, speaks at a rally outside city hall on Tuesday. (CBC)

In a news release on Tuesday evening, Ainslie said there was consensus at the meeting that more needs to be done.

“Every Torontonian should be very concerned with the homelessness crisis many are experiencing in the City of Toronto. We need to do everything in our power, with the attention of all three levels of government, to help those the most in need,” Ainslie said in the release.

“It is time the city acknowledges the escalating homelessness crisis and declare a homelessness emergency in the city of Toronto. This is not a ‘Toronto only’ problem, but one being experienced across the GTA. Homelessness itself is a complex, many-layered emergency, so unfortunately is the failure to respond to it.”

Gordon Tanner, SSHA’s general manager, told the committee that there is “increasing pressure” on the city’s homeless shelter system.

“We have some serious financial challenges as the city does at large to support the ongoing investment in these services, which are badly needed,” Tanner said.

Tanner said the division will work with the city’s corporate real estate management division to secure four warming centre sites by the summer. He said Metro Hall will not be available next year.

The division wants city council to ask the provincial and federal governments for $5 million to operate additional warming centres for the 2023-2024 winter season.

More funds needed to maintain services, staff say

In the report to the committee, Tanner said: “We continue to work closely with both the provincial and federal governments to secure additional needed investment to ensure that there is shelter space available in the winter months and throughout the year.

Given the city’s budget pressures, including a COVID-19 funding gap and funding requirements for shelter for refugee claimants, he said, Toronto will not be able to maintain current service levels without additional funding.

The report added: “… in the absence of future funding commitments from the federal and provincial governments for 2023, funding will no longer be available for any contractual obligations under Winter Services program starting January 1, 2024.”

The committee also passed a motion, moved by Coun. Chris Moise, that recommends that council ask the city’s SSHA to prioritize the opening and operation of 24-hour respite sites. Moise represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre.

Before the meeting, several homeless advocates gathered outside city hall to demand that Toronto declare a homelessness emergency.

“Declaring a state of emergency opens up doors to get access to provincial and federal funding so that we can build and invest in the programs that we need to,”  Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker, said after the rally.

“We know this is worsening.”

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