Indigenous shelters in Toronto and Montreal call for more emergency warming spaces as winter approaches
'All it took was the pandemic to show the huge cracks in our social safety net'
Indigenous shelter advocates in Toronto and Montreal are calling for better winter emergency warming plans including more shelter spaces because they are seeing an increase in people living outdoors since the pandemic began.
Steve Teekens, executive director of Na-Me-Res, an emergency shelter and housing organization for Indigenous men in Toronto, has been involved with harm reduction and shelter work in Toronto since the mid-1990s.
"When I see the unprecedented amount of homeless people staying outdoors, it makes me feel sad, disappointed, and frustrated," said Teekens.
"All it took was the pandemic to show the huge cracks in our social safety net and it is our homeless people who are falling in the cracks."
The City of Toronto's 2018 Street Needs Assessment report found there were 8,715 people in the city experiencing homelessness. The report found that 38 per cent of outdoor respondents identified as Indigenous and 16 per cent of all respondents identified as Indigenous. Indigenous people represented between 1 to 2.5 per cent of the overall Toronto population in 2018.
Na-Me-Res offers a culturally-connected environment for men experiencing homelessness and those leaving the criminal justice system and operates a number of buildings across the city. However, with social distancing requirements the number of beds have been slashed. Its emergency shelter has been cut to 35 beds from 71, the transitional centre to 20 from 25.
Teekens participated in the City of Toronto COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy in August but said he doesn't think it will adequately serve the homeless population in Toronto.
"There seems to be a lack of spaces to put a roof over people's heads that are homeless," he said.
Teekens said he feels the recovery plan falls short because there is no suitable plan to get people into housing.
"That is always the best solution to end homelessness," he said.
The city has said it will provide about 560 new spaces through a combination of shelter beds, 24-hour respite beds, hotel programs and supportive housing units. Additional space will be available at warming centres during extreme cold weather alerts.
A Toronto Public Health spokesperson said in an emailed statement that Toronto has the largest shelter system in Canada, providing space for more than 6,000 individuals each night through 75 shelters and 24-hour respite sites that are operated by the city and its partners.
"As part of the city's response to COVID-19, the city has also opened more than 40 temporary facilities to achieve physical distancing in the shelter system and provide space for people to move indoors from encampments, of which 25 are currently operating," the statement said.
"The ultimate goal is to help those experiencing homelessness to find permanent housing."
'I am worried for those who don't have a space'
Nakuset, executive director of the Native Women's Shelter Montreal and co-manager of Resilience Montreal, said she's seeing more people on the streets.
Resilience Montreal is a day and wellness centre located across the street from Cabot Square. For a number of decades, Cabot Square has been a significant gathering place for Indigenous people in Montreal, especially Inuit.
The day centre moved outside temporarily from March to August to accommodate the number of people that were coming. In the past the centre has primarily served Indigenous people, but since the pandemic began, Nakuset said people from all cultural backgrounds are coming to them for help.
She said for now they're doing the best with what they can but need more space.
"I can't put too many people in the building and I do not want people freezing to death," said Nakuset.
They have had to improvise with a heated tent in the courtyard but she said it's not a sustainable solution with colder weather to come.
She said large spaces like empty post-secondary school buildings or malls that have empty spaces should be opened during cold weather, allowing people to stay 24 hours.
"People rely on us and we need to be there for them," said Nakuset.
"I am worried for those who don't have a space."
On Oct. 29, Public Health Montreal announced its winter plan for people experiencing homelessness, which includes more than 1,650 places to sleep at night.
In an emailed statement, Public Health Montreal said "After consulting various roaming stakeholders and listening to users, an improved and adapted service offer is being rolled out this year to better meet the needs of this vulnerable population. In addition, this new offer meets public health guidelines on COVID-19 health security for people experiencing homelessness.
"We continue to work jointly and in collaboration with all our community partners to find solutions to the problems of homelessness and housing in Montreal, for both the general population and the Aboriginal population."
Nakuset acknowledges the efforts that the city and health unit are making but said she doesn't think they are doing enough.
She said that with approximately 4,000 homeless people in Montreal, she's worried for those who don't have a space because regular shelters are running at 60 per cent capacity.