n Nathan Philips Square, backing onto the Toronto sign, activists and supporters gathered Monday to demand the upcoming city budget be refocused to support vulnerable people, not policing. The rally was organized by the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) and Health Providers Against Poverty (HPAP). The proposed budget includes a $48 million dollar increase to the Toronto Police Service, bringing it up to $1.16 billion.
Meanwhile, multiple programs designed to support Toronto’s growing unhoused population will receive little or no real funding increases, as inflation currently sits at 6.6 per cent. The city plans to close five shelter hotels in 2023, an integral part of the shelter network that is currently running at 99% capacity.
Ten years ago, Katherin Clouse was living on the streets of Toronto. She was using drugs and, as she put it, heading for a violent end. She credits her survival and recovery to a city drop-in centre where she found safety, support and community.
“I would either be dead or in jail,” Clouse explained while talking about her experience. “It was like a launch pad that got me my life back.”
Support centres like these can create a judgment-free environment where people affected by homelessness gain access to medical attention, essential services, and housing referral programs. As Toronto’s unhoused population grows, available supports are quickly deflating.
Warming centres are essential for survival during the harshest parts of winter, but their opening and capacity limitations leave hundreds out in the cold every night.
Consequences of neglect
“There's nowhere for people to go.” said Lorraine Lam, an organizer with SHJN. “There's only 142 spaces in warming centres available across the whole city, 75 spaces downtown. We know that over 700 people sleep outside every night, according to the city's own data.”
Currently, temperatures need to be -15 C without wind chill for city centres to open unless the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration makes an exception. “They actually need to be open 24-7, because then we get into a conversation around summertime and there's no cooling centres open.”
A banner with 166 silhouettes on it (one for each person who died on the streets of Toronto in 2021) was held in front of the Toronto sign. Supporters at the vigil also took part in a die-in, laying on the snow and cold concrete mirroring the silhouettes as their bodies stretched north through Nathan Philips Square towards City Hall.
“It’s powerful to highlight that these are people's lives that we're talking about.” said Lam. “Sometimes we get into this political debate about theories and abstract things, but it's about people and we forget the humanity of that sometimes.”
The Shelter and Housing Justice Network is calling on the City of Toronto to:
1. Stop the proposed expansion of the police budget and the increase to transit and park enforcement. Redirect funds to expand options for safe housing and shelter.
2. Reinstate low-barrier 24-7 warming centres/respite spaces until the shelter capacity is below 90%. Ensure these spaces offer hot meals and livable conditions and comply with Toronto Shelter Standards. Create a minimum of 250 spaces downtown.
3. Keep existing shelter hotel spaces open, and add at least 2700 more non-congregate shelter spaces.
4. Stop the eviction of encampment residents and the destruction of survival gear.
5. Collaborate with all levels of government to build 10,000 rent-geared-to-income units immediately and 90,000 additional units to address the growing waitlist.
A community survey has been created under the banner People’s BudgetTO where people can share their perspectives on the upcoming budget. This is available here.