.The COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized effect on Toronto's homeless, placing an already stretched shelter system under enormous pressure as it attempts to implement social distancing measures. Out of a population of 8,000 people accessing the shelter system, between 2,000 and 3,000 people needed to be relocated in order to assure their health. City staff have found additional spaces through a combination of hotels, community spaces and vacant apartments. As of May 5, 1600 individuals had been moved from the shelter system to these safer spaces.
While the City has been working on the challenge, more homeless people have resorted to living in tents in public parks and other spaces. In the Village, the largest encampments have been in Barbara Hall Park and George Hislop Park.
While in normal times individuals would not be allowed to set up camp in city parks, these are far from normal times. The City has placed a moratorium on encampment evictions for the duration of the COVID-19 epidemic -- though it is now making some exemptions.
Encampments have led to their own set of safety and security issues for both those living outdoors and other members of the community, not the least of which is that effective COVID-19 prevention measures -- social distancing and regular hand washing -- are difficult to implement.
On April 29, Mayor John Tory announced a new interim housing program located in two connected, vacant mid-rise apartment buildings that had been slated for demolition. There is a total of 125 furnished units for clients, at no cost to them. They will be provided with on-site supports including meals, 24/7 staff support, security and case management focused on long-term housing and other immediate needs, including harm reduction supports.
According to the press release, "The City’s Streets to Homes outreach team, working with community partners, will approach individuals and couples who are sleeping outdoors for an opportunity to move into these units. Access to units will be prioritized for clients in encampment sites that present health and safety concerns and are identified as higher risk to COVID-19 related harms."
The mayor also announced a plan to create 110 modular supportive housing units on two City-owned sites. The new modular homes are expected to be ready for occupancy by September 2020.
[Update; On May 7, the 519 issued a letter addressed to concerned neighbours, regarding the "difficult circumstances the Village, and the rest of downtown, are facing in relation to increased levels of violence, threatening behaviours, and property damage" [see the full letter here] .
According to Councillor Wong-Tam's office:
There is currently a moratorium on encampment clearing during the pandemic. The City is amending this policy in line with current City bylaws that allow encampment clearings in emergencies to clear specific encampments focused on public property. The encampments that will be cleared are the ones where the City’s Streets to Homes outreach team, other divisions and partner agencies are approaching clients who sleep outdoors to offer spaces indoors in the interim housing program, shelter or hotels, as well as support to access permanent housing ...Ultimately, it is up to clients if they decide to move indoors to spaces offered to them. Outreach teams will continue to engage with clients at these sites. The City will not currently be clearing encampments on private property but is focused on specific encampments on City property including George Hislop Park.
The City-funded Streets to Homes team has worked tirelessly on behalf of the most marginalized in our community. City staff and local organizations, including Sanctuary and The 519, are also committed to finding solutions to homelessness in Toronto. Councillor Wong-Tam has advocated strongly, for years, for more resources from all levels of government to address homelessness and affordable housing.
While the latest initiatives will somewhat alleviate the immediate situation, more resources are needed from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Unfortunately, it has taken an epidemic to bring to the fore the longstanding interwoven crises of addiction, mental illness and homelessness in Canada. Let's hope that measures taken now will lead to more permanent solutions.
[For more news on the homelessness and encampments situation, see Ward 13 News Updates (often under the title 'COVID-19 Update']