With the increase of tents scattered around the city’s parks and open spaces, it seems the streets of Toronto have become home to an increasingly large number of homeless people… at least that is how it appears to the people who circulate the city. What is causing this phenomenon and how can we help?
Holly Thompson (Director of Marketing and Communications): The issue with homeless encampments around the city has a lot to do with the pandemic, but has it’s roots in other long-term causes as well. Before the pandemic the emergency shelter system was operating at 98% capacity, which meant that it was almost impossible to find space in a shelter. The Shelter Network are linked agencies proving shelter for men, women, and families. If someone comes to one shelter with no availability, the shelter can find out if there are open spaces available at any of the other shelters.
Additionally, there is an affordable housing crisis in the city, there are extremely long waits for social housing and few other affordable options available. This means that people end up staying in the emergency shelter system indefinitely and there is less space for people experiencing homelessness for the first time.
The pandemic complicated the issue in a number of ways:
- More social distancing was needed in shelters to keep residents safe, which leaves fewer beds available. The Scott Mission converted two extra rooms into shelter space, and still had to reduce the number of beds available by almost half. (72 to 41) Some clients were moved to hotels operated by the City, others left because they found housing or of their own choosing. The City opened many spaces in hotels, but clients were often reluctant to leave areas they knew and cut off relationships with other clients and staff – their support systems;
- More fear. Many shelter residents across the city were fearful of COVID in the shelter system. Even with increased space and safety measures, people were very fearful of contracting COVID. People who are homeless also tend to have other underlying health issues that would have made the coronavirus an extra threat. Many people living in the encampments feel they have no other options;
- Lack of choice. The pandemic also closed a number of doors that might have been open to people experiencing homelessness – staying with friends and family for example;
- Evictions, loss of employment, and other economic factors related to the pandemic would have an impact on the number of homeless.
Shelters were already doing everything they could before the pandemic, but they are meant for emergency use, not long-term living. Affordable, permanent housing options are key for solving the issue of homelessness. All people need a space where they feel safe and secure. The City and various levels of Government have recognized this and created strategies (https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/community-partners/affordable-housing-partners/housingto-2020-2030-action-plan/ ).
People who are concerned about homelessness can help in a number of ways:
- Support organizations providing support for people experiencing homelessness and/or who are providing affordable housing options, including eviction protection
- Letting their elected representatives know that they care, that they support plans for assisting people who are homeless or in need of affordable housing, and keeping track of progress being made on action plans
- Have compassion. People experiencing homelessness have had an extraordinarily bad year, in an already difficult situation. Many day programs have been shut; restaurants and libraries have not been open; for a while in 2020 people couldn’t even sit on benches in parks. Needed facilities like washrooms, showers, laundry, etc. are difficult to access or not available at all. All of this on top of the fear and worry that everyone has experienced surrounding COVID.