Homeless advocates call on city to do more to help unhoused people as temperature drops

Homeless advocates are calling on the city to do more to help unhoused people fighting to survive as the temperature drops in Toronto.

More shelter hotels, warming centres needed, plus moratorium on encampment clearing, advocates say

A poster on the side of a tiny house in an encampment urges the city to leave the structure alone. (CBC)

Homeless advocates are calling on the city to do more to help unhoused people fighting to survive as the temperature drops in Toronto.

The advocates want the city to open more shelter hotels and warming centres and to issue a moratorium on clearing encampments.

Rafi Aaron, spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, urged the city to take action before winter deepens in Toronto and there is "great suffering." The coalition is an advocacy and outreach organization that believes all people in Toronto are entitled to shelter, food and security.

"What has to happen is the city has to secure shelter hotels or hotel rooms where we have one person living in one room with one washroom," Aaron told CBC Toronto. "And they have to act quickly. Everything gets heightened in the winter and that hasn't happened yet but it will."

Aaron said homeless people are facing an increased risk of frostbite as the weather gets colder in Toronto. Doctors and nurses are already reporting that they are seeing more cases of frostbite this year because more people are living outside due to the pandemic, he said. 

"When you are outside 24/7, you are going to see more frostbite," he said.

Aaron said the COVID-19 pandemic has made life even more difficult for homeless people because congregate settings, such as libraries, coffee shops and fast food outlets, are closed under the provincial stay-at-home order and second state of emergency. 

Rafi Aaron, spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, stands outside of the office of Toronto Mayor John Tory on Jan. 14. 2020, after a petition signed by 30,000 people demanded that the mayor declare homelessness to be an emergency in the city. The petition followed a ceremony at the Homeless Memorial that marked the 1,000th name added to the Memorial. (Paul Salvatori)

Advocates estimate there are anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people living outside and around 40 encampments in Toronto. The city estimates the number of people outside is closer to 400.

On Friday, when the city opened four warming centres across Toronto due to a drop in temperatures, the centres were filled by 7:20 p.m., Aaron said he was told by a street nurse who works on the east side of downtown.

"That just tells you that there are so many more people that wanted to get in there but couldn't."

On its website, the city said it activates its warming centres when it, along with its medical officer of health, issues a cold weather alert based on a weather forecast of –15 C or colder.

The city opened the warming centres on Friday in "an abundance of caution" due to colder nighttime temperatures, forecasted wind chill values and expected snow. The centres are part of the city's winter services plan.

Clearing encampments pushes people into unsafe areas

Aaron said the city should issue a moratorium on clearing encampments because forcing people out of city parks only displaces them and pushes them into areas, such as ravines or wooded areas, that are less safe and further away from their support systems.

If unhoused people are in encampments, he said: "We know where the people are. We can reach them and check on them."

According to Aaron, the city has adopted a "seasonal approach" to homelessness, where the shelter system is expanded in the winter and contracted in the spring, but this system doesn't work in the pandemic.

"The Bandaid solutions done for so many years are no longer applicable during COVID. It's very, very worrisome," he said. "This is not a normal year."

The city has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe says the number of outbreaks in shelters has risen dramatically in the last 10 days. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

Cathy Crowe, a street nurse, agreed that the situation is great cause for concern and she noted that the number of outbreaks in shelters is on the rise.

"I'm seriously alarmed at the increase in COVID-19 cases that we are seeing in the shelters. It's quite a dramatic increase in the last 10 days," she said.

"I'm really worried with the new variant strain that we are going to see more outbreaks."

Crowe said more shelter hotels are needed. "People need to stay in the encampments," she added.

According to the city's Status of COVID-19 page, there are eight outbreaks in city shelters and respite services with 59 cases overall. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 731 cases of COVID-19 linked to shelter outbreaks.

"It's really quite serious because the homeless population has such poor health overall," she said.

With files from Alison Chiasson