“We're just insisting that the city step up and do better.” — Lorraine Lam, Steering Committee Member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network
On Thursday morning about 50 people gathered in -13 degree weather outside of the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre on Peter St. to support a press conference held by the Shelter and Housing Justice Network [SHJN].
The SHJN, a network of homelessness and housing advocates composed of shelter workers, volunteers and shelter residents, says the shelter system in the Greater Toronto Area has collapsed.
According to a press release on the SHJN website, fifty shelters across the GTA are currently experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, with over 2290 cases, and are unable to accept new residents. There are over 8,700 unhoused people in Toronto, with over 1000 sleeping outside every night.
“I am here today because we're just insisting that the city step up and do better,” Lorraine Lam, an outreach coordinator at the Sanctuary Shelter and a member of the Steering Committee for SHJN, told The Hoser. “[The city] has been slow to respond with any urgency in terms of COVID-19 and how it's affecting people in the homeless community. And they keep saying that they're prepared, but it's very clear that they're not prepared. And things are just not going well.”
The SHJN released a list of ten demands on their website that they hope the city will adopt:
- Increase capacity of the COVID recovery program to at least 200 beds. [Up from 60 beds the city is currently offering.]
- Immediately incorporate 2,250 permanent, non-congregate shelter beds into the system.
- Repeal the ‘no camping’ bylaw.
- Extend shelter-hotel leases. [Shelter-hotel leases in the GTA are to end in the spring.]
- Distribute at least 3,000 new housing allowances to unhoused people in 2022 and make them available to all unhoused people.
- Freeze all evictions with the powers of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act.
- Broaden the emergency weather system to respond to real-world conditions (as per the Winter Plan). [Currently, the emergency weather system is only activated when temperatures reach -15 degrees.]
- Expand overdose prevention, education, training, and response and implement the recommendations of the Toronto Shelter-Hotel Overdose Preparedness Assessment Project.
- Implement COVID-19 indoor air quality safety measures and ensure full transparency & public reporting about each shelter site.
- Implement all of the recommendations from the SHJN Winter Plan.
Brian Cleary, a housing advocate who lived in the Toronto shelter system for three years, came to the press conference to support his friends who are still unhoused. “It's frustrating, especially at this time of year. I don't know how many examples we need to come up with of how badly broken this system is, or how it needs more oversight.”
“It's especially tragic on a day like today,” Cleary said. “[The city] doesn’t consider this temperature extreme cold weather, believe it or not. Everybody here is risking frostbite just standing at this press conference, imagine trying to spend the day in this?”
When asked how he thinks the city of Toronto can improve the shelter system crisis, Cleary said he hopes the city will consult housing advocates and unhoused residents before implementing more policy.
“I hope they do that more meaningfully than just sending surveys around. They really do need us at policy tables when policy is getting made. If you're not consulting your residents and your clients when you're doing that, you're doing it wrong.”
Last week the Prisoners Rights Project, in collaboration with Maggie’s, raised nearly $100,000 in two days for humanitarian aid for unhoused Toronto residents. So far, the Prisoners Rights Project and Maggie’s have bought 67 tents, 2800 hand and foot warmers, 70 winterized sleeping bags, and many more essential items to help unhoused residents survive sub-zero conditions. The rest of the money will be evenly allocated between Unity Kitchen, Maggies, Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction and Sanctuary.
You can donate to the Prisoners Rights Project humanitarian fund by e-transferring to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘survival drive’ in the notes. You can also donate items directly to the Unity Kitchen at 19 Trinity Square Monday to Friday between 10am and 3pm. Check their list of requested donation items here.