As the pressure on Toronto’s emergency shelter system continues to build, a group of housing and health advocates are calling on City Hall to declare a state of emergency to address a “disaster” unfolding on the streets, and pushing for the swift opening of temporary respite sites.
“The whole system is imploding. What happens when you don’t take care of the social housing component is that everything filters down into the emergency shelter system,” said Rafi Aaron, a member of the newly created Shelter and Housing Justice Network, speaking with the Star.
Network members include Health Providers Against Poverty, the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Street Nurses Network, the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society and No One Is Illegal. A list of their demands were read out on Thursday at city hall, before the new and smaller council was set to handle official business.
Toronto must declare a state of emergency, they said, to deal with the duel disasters of homelessness and rising opioid overdose deaths. The provincial and federal governments should also, they said, be called on to speed up funding and supports for local overdose prevention initiatives.
This week, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported 683 people died of opioid overdose deaths in Ontario in the first half of 2018. Last year at least 308 people died in Toronto.
At last count, the roughly 4,340 shelter beds currently available for women, men and youth were almost completely full. The city has some space in the 2,800 spots in motels and hotels added to manage the overflow and which also serve to temporarily house asylum seekers. An additional 860 people used temporary respite sites, drop-ins and one location of the volunteer-led Out of the Cold program.
This winter the city will erect three prefabricated domes, with showers, heating and ventilation, for people seeking relief from the elements. The first, at Liberty St. and Fraser Ave., will open this month and two more will open in January. The original plan was to open four domes but a potential site in Etobicoke was dropped after Premier Doug Ford expressed concerns to Mayor John Tory and then area councillor John Campbell, the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro reported in July. City staff told the Star there were servicing challenges identified with the Etobicoke dome.
Network member and street nurse Cathy Crowe said the group wants the city to find a site for a forth dome and get all the sites opened as soon as possible. The domes will provide safe and clean shelter, she said, but shouldn’t have to exist.
“To me it is like the ghettoizing of poor people in these structures and the next thing will probably be more formalized tent cities,” Crowe said. “I don’t see how they are ever going to be able to close. Unless something drastic happens.”
The city must also, the group said, commit to the creation of at least 1,000 new emergency shelter beds in 2019 on top of existing plans, and 100,000 rent geared to income units over five years. All levels of government must invest an additional 1 per cent of their budgets to tackling homelessness and housing issues, they said.
Affordable housing director Sean Gadon, speaking on council floor on Thursday, said he first heard of Tory’s pledge through the news and staff are working to find ways to meet that pledge. Tory’s signature housing plan, Open Door, has yet to meet a target of 1,000 new units per year.
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar