City staff urge Toronto to close up to 5 temporary homeless shelters this year

City staff are proposing that Toronto decommission up to five temporary homeless shelters this year as a part of a new plan unveiled on Thursday.

Recommendation is part of larger plan on future of shelter hotels that opened during pandemic

A person stands in front of the Better Living Centre, which contains a temporary homeless shelter. The site will be closed on April 30. City staff are urging the city to close up to five temporary homeless shelters this year. (CBC)

City staff are proposing that Toronto decommission up to five temporary homeless shelters this year as a part of a new plan unveiled on Thursday, but advocates worry the move will put a strain on those experiencing homelessness.

The plan identifies two of the five temporary homeless shelters to be closed by May 15: the Better Living Centre on Princes' Boulevard and the former Days Inn hotel on Queen Street East. The Better Living centre, to be closed April 30, has been operating for 17 months. The other locations will be identified in the coming months, the city says.

According to a staff report, the two closures will mean the city will lose 231 spaces for unhoused people this spring: 187 at the Better Living Centre and 44 at the Days Inn.

As public health guidelines change, the city says it wants to make plans to "transition" out of these sites.

The report also recommends the city extend the leases of 12 of its hotel shelters in two stages until April 2023, with most of the properties to be extended in the first stage until December 31, 2022.

The city's economic and community development committee will consider the report on March 24, while city council will consider the matter on April 6.

Toronto has used the temporary shelters to augment its existing shelter system during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Gord Tanner, acting general manager of the city's shelter support and housing administration.

The plan allows the city to close temporary homeless shelters gradually over two years, he said, giving the city "significant time" to work with shelter residents to help them find permanent housing or another shelter space.

"We're not able to quickly move to decommission these sites overnight," said Tanner, adding the city has to work out details with the shelter hotel operators before it can release more information.

"Some of the negotiations are still underway with the property owners," he said.

Advocates concerned about loss of shelter beds

Homeless advocates, for their part, say the plan is concerning because it means the loss of shelter beds and worry it will be difficult to offset the loss. They also say the plan will create stress and anxiety among shelter hotel residents because temporary homeless shelters are closing on a series of different dates.

A sign for harm reduction supplies is seen at a temporary homeless shelter set up by the city during the COVID-19 pandemic. (CBC)

Dr. A.J. Withers, a steering committee member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network and adjunct faculty in critical disability studies at York University, said the plan is not clear and is "unjust."

"There's not really a plan here. They're continuing to try and shamble together things with a shelter system that is in collapse. They continue to scramble with an overly full system that they're piecing together from a variety of different, totally inadequate places where there are really inhuman conditions," Withers said.

"The city is just kicking the can down the road without a real plan to deal with what's actually going on in our streets and in our shelters."

The city says there are 27 temporary homeless shelter sites in Toronto, which make up about 40 per cent of the total spaces in the city's shelter system. The temporary sites provide shelter to about 3,200 people each night.

"A sudden reversal of these spaces is not recommended as it would cause significant disruption to the vital services delivered through the sites and to those who rely on them," the city said in a news release on Wednesday.

The report also calls for the creation of "a dedicated refugee shelter sector" to free up existing shelter capacity.

Lack of adequate housing, shelter resources

But Toronto's shelter system needs more funding and the city's approach fails to deal with the larger problem of a lack of affordable and supportive housing, Withers said.

"The fundamental reality is the city refuses to put enough resources into housing and the shelter system," Withers said.

As long as that remains the case, Toronto will remain in "perpetual crisis," Wither said, adding what the city needs is adequate rent-geared-to-income housing.

"They have no regard for people's anxiety, for their mental health, for their long term well-being. They think that unhoused people can simply get up and go." 

With files from Dalia Ashry