'People have the right to exist': Toronto's homeless advocates demand better winter plan from city

Members of Toronto's homeless community and their advocates say they want a better winter plan from the city.

Shelter Housing Justice Network issues several recommendations for city to implement

Chris, who was sleeping in a park until a few weeks ago, with his kitten in his new permanent housing space. (Craig Chivers / CBC)

Toronto's homeless community and their supporters are demanding a better plan from the city for the coming winter.

But the city says it is rolling out a new "focused approach" at encampments across Toronto in an attempt to get more people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing faster.

The Shelter Housing Justice Network, which represents members of the homeless community and those who work with them, issued a report Tuesday with several recommendations.

The group wants the city to extend leases it holds on hotels that are used to house the homeless during the pandemic.

They also want the city to allow the homeless to camp in public spaces.

"The city must repeal the no-camping bylaw," said Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries Toronto.

"People have the right to exist."

Homeless encampments popped up throughout the city when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Hundreds fled shelters for fear of contracting the virus.

7,300 moved during pandemic, city says

The city won a court battle last year that upheld its powers to enact and enforce the no-camping bylaw.

This past summer, the city cleared three encampments in public parks, some of it by force from the police riot squad.

The city said the encampments were not safe and illegal.

"The city cannot force people to come inside and avail themselves of the many services offered by the city, but living in an encampment in a city park or right-of-way is not permitted," said city spokesman Anthony Toderian.

The city said it has moved nearly 7,300 people to permanent housing from the shelter system between the time the pandemic hit and August this year.

Meanwhile, the city is taking what it calls a a new "focused approach" to help people out of encampments and into permanent housing at a number of parks across the city.

Toderian said this effort is currently underway at Dufferin Grove park and a number of other encampments, where the city's Streets to Homes workers engage with people experiencing homelessness daily to help move them into permanent housing. The wait time for an apartment is now about six to eight weeks, he said

'Pretty sad that I had to stay in a park'

Chris, whose last name CBC has agreed to withhold for privacy reasons, said he was sleeping at Dufferin Grove park for more than a year before moving into permanent housing "a few weeks ago."

He had tried staying in a shelter but said it "wasn't very safe, so the park was the next best option."

He said safety concerns stemmed from the lack of space, which led to fights with other occupants, security guards in the shelter "never being there" and feeling "closed in with nowhere to go."

Chris, whose last name is being withheld due to privacy concerns, entering his new apartment. (Craig Chivers / CBC)

While he did not provide an exact time frame, Chris said from the first conversation he had with outreach workers about securing permanent housing, to getting the keys to his apartment, the process was "pretty quick."

"It's pretty sad that I had to stay in a park to get housed in the first place," he said. 

He said since he had moved into an apartment he was feeling "a lot healthier," was sleeping better and was able to start medication for an infection he'd picked up while on the streets. He has not yet been connected to employment services but said he hopes to be in the future.

He said he hopes "other people get the green light as well, like I did, and are able to get housed before being forced out of the encampments."

"If you kick people out of parks, they're just going to end up in other parks. What needs to happen is people need to be housed. People need mental health resources — there's no band-aid solution. They need a permanent solution."

Focused approach 'should continue'

Community organizer Alykhan Pabani said the results for those in Dufferin Grove had been "positive" and the city should "continue this approach because it's working."

He said the "brute force" used by police to force people out of encampments over summer does not work.

"When [people] get displaced from the encampments and they go into the shelters, that's not the end of the story. We've seen people coming back from the shelters and living on the streets because they prefer these options."

Pabani said the shelters are often unsafe and restrictive, so those without permanent housing often prefer to sleep in the city's parks. 

The Shelter Housing Justice Network has issued a report with several recommendations it wants the city to implement. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Coun. Ana Bailao, who represents Ward  9, Davenport, said at Dufferin Grove, one worker is there constantly, rather than different workers visiting intermittently.

"We need to make sure that people feel safe coming inside through our shelter system… or through permanent housing that is available as well.

"The reality is we're doing everything we can to bring people inside. Winter is just around the corner."

'Our loved ones and friends are dying'

The overdose crisis in the province is also hitting the homeless at a much higher rate than the general public.

On Tuesday, advocates added 16 names — many John Does — on a memorial for homeless people who have died on the streets and in shelters during August and September.

"We are in the middle of an escalating overdose crisis," Cook said at the memorial outside the Holy Trinity church.

"Our loved ones and friends are dying. Half of the people who die without housing die of drug toxicity — this is alarming and must be addressed."

Jennifer Jewell, who lived in an encampment before taking the city's offer to move in to a shelter hotel downtown 10 months ago, said safe housing should be the city's highest priority.

"We need housing now, people need to be provided safe spaces to heal, they need homes," Jewell said.

While shelter hotels provide a room, she said the city needs to offer more harm reduction because she's seen many die in her hotel alone. She said it took the city 11 months to set up a peer-support program to help with the overdoses.

"Please help us," Jewell said. "Police are no solution."

Jewell said she has no idea how long she can stay at the hotel the city has leased despite constantly asking officials.

The city said it "continues to explore appropriate options" to ensure vulnerable residents have access to safe indoor shelter space and that it plans to "continue current response efforts" until at least the end of the year.

"Most hotel providers have indicated willingness to extend leases to at least April 2022 to mitigate the need for transitions during the winter," Toderian added.

The city's winter services plan will be shared in early November, Toderian said, and will include details on 24-hour respite centres and warming centres that will be activated when extreme cold-weather alerts are issued.

With files from The Canadian Press