City spending $10M on 4 temporary shelters, but housing advocates say long-term solutions needed

The tented, insulated structures can house 100 people each, with washrooms and dining facilities, but critics are likening them to a "refugee camp" for the homeless.

Tented, insulated structures can house 100 people each, with washrooms and dining facilities

The city plans to buy and construct four of these tented structures. This one, similar to those planned to house members of Toronto's homeless population, has been used for 10 years as a gym facility for Toronto private school Bayview Glen. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

With Toronto's shelter system bursting at the seams, the city is spending more than $10 million on new temporary shelter structures — a strategy one housing advocate is calling a "refugee camp" for the homeless.

On Wednesday morning, city staff announced the purchase of four insulated buildings capable of housing 100 people each.

Built out of durable fabric and fibreglass on an aluminum frame, the tented pop-up structures can be used as accessible year-round respite centres with plumbing, showers, toilets, laundry facilities, dining areas, cots, televisions and administrative offices.

The city is spending $2.5 million to construct each site, plus other support costs, according to Paul Raftis, manager of the shelter, support and housing division.

"This is a cost-effective way to both increase capacity quickly and improve service quality," he said.

Each structure can house 100 people plus support staff, according to the city. (Supplied by City of Toronto)

Shelter system at 93% occupancy rate

Raftis noted the shelters are not meant to handle the influx of thousands of refugee claimants into Toronto — a situation that prompted Mayor John Tory to recently plead for help from the province and federal government, with Ottawa later committing $11 million for Ontario — but rather the ongoing shelter crunch. 

In Toronto, 24-hour winter respite sites usually shut down by April 15, but high occupancy rates led city council to direct staff to keep the programs open beyond the end-date. While two downtown sites closed, replacement sites opened elsewhere at Lambton Arena, near the corner of Dundas Street West and Royal York Road, and Don Mills Civitan Arena, near the corner of Don Mills Road and Lawrence Avenue East.

The most recent numbers show roughly 550 people were staying across the city's 10 respite sites and women's drop-ins as of June 5, with more than 6,500 people using the shelter system.

Facing similar challenges, other cities including San Diego, California, and Honolulu, Hawaii have used the tented structures from Canadian company Sprung to house members of their homeless populations. (Toronto private school Bayview Glen has also, for the last decade, used one as a spacious gym facility.)

But with Toronto's shelter system currently at a 93 per cent occupancy rate, housing and homelessness advocates say a long-term solution is crucial.

Shelter use in Toronto is on the rise, as this city graph shows, with more than 6,500 people using the system as of June 5. (City of Toronto)

More affordable housing needed, advocate says

"Physically they are amazing structures," said long-time street nurse Cathy Crowe, who toured the Bayview Glen facility on Tuesday. "But still warehouse style. Not real shelter."

Even so, Crowe hopes the tented facilities are built in high-demand areas like Moss Park on the east side of downtown, a spot well-known for already having an overdose prevention site.

Staff said exact locations haven't been finalized, but two of the four sites will open in the core, with another slated for the west end and one for the east. Half the sites are opening by August and all four are expected to be ready by the winter.

The new shelters could save lives during the colder months, said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto. But he said the city needs to couple those efforts with more affordable housing.

"We're essentially making a refugee camp for [homeless] people in Toronto," Cook said.


Lauren Pelley

Senior Health & Medical Reporter

Lauren Pelley covers health and medical science for CBC News, including the global spread of infectious diseases, Canadian health policy, and pandemic preparedness. Her 2020 investigation into COVID-19 infections among health-care workers won best in-depth series at the RNAO Media Awards. Contact her at: