Declare Toronto homelessness a state of emergency, advocate group says

Holding R.I.P. signs in honour of Toronto residents who lost their lives to homelessness so far this year, councillors and other housing advocates called on the city to create an action plan to tackle the issue.

So far in 2019, 4 Toronto residents have died from homelessness

The Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN), and Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, convened at city hall Tuesday to call for an immediate action plan from all levels of government to tackle homelessness. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Holding R.I.P. signs in honour of Toronto residents who lost their lives to homelessness so far this year, city councillors and other housing advocates called on the city to create an urgent action plan to tackle the issue. 

"We are experiencing a housing crisis and homelessness crisis that requires immediate emergency attention," Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam said at a press conference at city hall Tuesday morning. 

"We have people living under The Gardiner, living in the ravines, living in the parks." 

She was joined by several advocates, including nurse Cathy Crowe, as well as NDP MPP for Toronto Centre Suze Morrison and councillors Josh Matlow and Gord Perks, asking the city to declare a state of emergency for homelessness. 

Advocates release 'secret' footage of second-tier shelters

4 years ago
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Advocates release 'secret' footage of second-tier shelters

Several long-time advocates for the homeless officially unveiled the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) last month, when they also demanded the city declare the issue an emergency. 

Advocates release video footage of centres

Crowe said due to an overflow of occupants, a "second-tier" system has been created, with shelter conditions that have become "untenable, given the crowding and conditions." 

She said sites that started as temporary centres during cold-weather alerts are now permanent shelters for over 1,000 people in the city, and can no longer close come spring and summer. 

"We are seeing serious harms to persons every day, the worst of course is deaths," said nurse Cathy Crowe, long-time advocate. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"It looks like a scene you would see from Hurricane Katrina or some other catastrophe," Crowe told CBC Toronto. 

Crowe and other advocates have shared "secret" footage with various media outlets, aimed at conveying the conditions of these respite sites. Although she's not naming specific locations, the first is a warming centre and the second and third are respite sites. 


Because of violence and theft within these centres, Crowe says there are an additional 400 people left outside. 

By declaring a human rights crisis, the advocates hope to bring together the three levels of government to develop an urgent housing plan. 

Wong-Tam said that in 2018, 181,000 people were on Toronto's centralized waiting list for housing, and added that the city's rental vacancy rate is an "unhealthy 1.1%, with home sharing apps putting further pressure on our rental market."

Advocates call for emergency meeting, Red Cross support

The advocates have five main recommendations for city council: 

  • Comply with obligations under International Human Rights law to take all appropriate measures to address homelessness as a human rights crisis.
  • Declare homelessness a human rights disaster and seek assistance from the province under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
  • Request the province establish an intergovernmental table tasked with addressing the housing and homelessness crisis in Toronto.
  • Convene an emergency meeting with federal and provincial representatives to develop an urgent plan of action.
  • Request that the Office of Emergency Management take immediate steps to augment services for homeless individuals and seek the support of the Red Cross.

Tory says he's not calling for state of emergency 

But Toronto Mayor John Tory says instead of calling for a state of emergency, he is seeking long-term solutions to supportive and affordable housing. 

"That is something that is terribly lacking in our city at the moment," he said Tuesday. 

He said surveys taken by the government reveal around 50 per cent of homeless residents are suffering from mental health or addiction issues. He said he hopes to gain support from other levels of government for ongoing initiatives to move people out of shelters. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory says he will address supportive housing when he meets with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau next week, to ensure refugees and asylum claimants have housing. (CBC/Martin Trainor)

"By long-term, I don't mean years," Tory said. "We need to get going on this with the other governments right away." 

One of those initiatives is going in front of the executive committee tomorrow, and will take 11 pieces of city-owned land and convert them into affordable housing units. 

Tory also commended city staff and agencies running the shelters and respite centres despite complaints of poor conditions. 

"They're under pressure," he said. 

When asked about short-term solutions, Tory reccomended advocates shift their focus to Queen's Park, where he says major decisions on supportive housing are made. 

'Homelessness must end' 

Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina-Fort York and parliamentary secretary for housing and urban affairs, said the federal government has "stepped up" with $5.7 billion dollars to date to deal with housing and homelessness across Canada, with an additional $40 billion to come within the next 10 years. 

Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina—Fort York and parliamentary secretary for housing and urban affairs, says the federal government has funding waiting to be funnelled toward the city's homeless initiatives. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"We are prepared to meet at any time, anywhere with any city, particularly Toronto, to tackle this problem," he said. "Homelessness must end." 

He said the city needs to present the federal government with a plan for any funding that would come its way. 

'Every time we get a dollar in, we have a need for it'

Patricia Mueller, chief executive officer of the organization Homes First, says there's a "perfect storm" of factors that are radically increasing homelessness, including the intake of refugees, Toronto's condo boom and the opioid crisis — and supportive shelters just can't keep up with the demand.

Homes First runs the Strachan House, which houses 88 clients in need of high support, as well multiple emergency respite sites, emergency shelters and housing sites.

"We would like to build," Mueller said. "Every time we get a dollar in, we have a need for it, to help people, to feed people."

Patricia Mueller is the chief executive officer of Homes First, an organization that runs a series of emergency shelters and housing sites, including the Strachan House. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

For that reason, she said there are no outstanding budget allowances for down payments toward new spaces.

Homes First's housing sites have adopted a philosophy of supportive housing on a "continuum of need." Some sites require 24/7 support, while other only require daily or weekly check-ins, she says.

"There's no one-size-fits-all approach," Mueller said. "It's a complex issue, requiring a complex solution."