How do you close 40% of a city’s homeless shelters without putting people on the streets?
That’s the question Toronto now faces, with city staff outlining a two-year phase-out proposal for its 27 temporary COVID-19-era shelters — most located in hotels and motels.
The facilities have been open throughout the pandemic to carve out more space in the shelter system, which was facing an infection prevention lawsuit, and to create single-occupancy rooms for people living in encampments. With around 3,200 people sleeping in these shelters each night, time is ticking and there are weeks left on most hotel leases.
The staff proposal, which will be considered by a town hall committee on Thursday – and, if passed, by council on April 6 – would see up to five temporary sites closed by the end of 2022, the rest of the shelters working until at least next year.
The challenge? The city wants to keep the same number of shelter beds despite the closure of sites and is considering maneuvers ranging from doubling the number of hotel occupants to reducing the distance between beds in collective sites – while relying on the creation of new affordable housing.
It’s an approach that has raised alarm bells for some shelter occupants and advocates, who worry about where residents of closure sites will land if accommodation can’t be found in time.
“Because the city wanted people to leave the encampments, many of these people only felt safe and chose to leave with the offer of more dignified and safer spaces in shelter hotels,” said housing advocate AJ Withers, who also rated the city. fell below its housing targets last year – finding homes for around 3,560 shelter occupants despite a target of 7,500.
But city staff say that if their phase-out plan isn’t approved, many occupants could be evicted in April with nowhere to go.
“Given the current demand of the accommodation system, it is very likely that our system will not be able to offer alternative space for these displaced customers,” the report states.
Of the 27 sites, the first two to close are the 44-occupant Days Inn at 1684 Queen St. E. and the 187-occupant Better Living Center at 195 Princes’ Blvd. Both must be closed by May 15; the other three sites scheduled to close in 2022 have not been confirmed.
While residents of closed sites may end up in different shelters, Toronto Shelter System Director Gord Tanner noted that the first closures will come as the city frees up more than 100 hotel spaces once used for the COVID-19 recovery.
For the occupant of the Hotel Gru shelter, whose legal name is Jesse Allan, news of the lease extensions was a relief. He’s been staying at a hotel on the Esplanade for about a year. Staff are now proposing to extend this lease until December, and then until the end of April 2023 if necessary.
But he is skeptical of the city’s ability to help house the majority of occupants of hotel refuges, even with an extended runway. “Either the government really needs to step up its efforts to find and acquire affordable housing for people, or we will end up being told, ‘You can go to a group shelter, or you can go back to the streets.’ »
This year, the city expects some 3,000 new affordable housing opportunities – many with supportive services – thanks to various levels of government support, partnerships with nonprofits, Toronto Community Housing and private landlords. , and rent supplements.
But the city, in its report, paints a picture of a significant gap between housing needs and supply.
Fewer than 4,000 people were accommodated in the city’s shelters last year, while more than 8,000 people entered the shelter system. To free up beds, staff said they need three to four times the housing rate, and to reduce chronic homelessness, the number of supportive housing needs to double. This assumes that the number of users of shelters in Toronto does not increase.
Pressure is mounting on the system due to its affordability in the city is getting worse, staff noted. And in recent months, Toronto has also seen more refugee claimants arriving in need of shelter.
“It is anticipated that new arrivals of refugee claimants to Ontario could even exceed what was seen in 2018 and 2019,” staff predicted, noting that they had worked with service providers to create 750 dedicated beds. refugees. The report called for a broader intergovernmental strategy to manage mass arrivals and $61 million in federal assistance for this year.
For the entire transition strategy, the City projects a cost of $130.29 million in 2022.
As the transition plan has already been pushed back, with some residents writing to councilors against lease extensions, citing issues such as noise pollution, Tanner said the city needs to better communicate to the public the extent of the building needs. shelters and social services.
Different levels of government also need to better address the root causes of homelessness, he said, adding that it was cheaper for governments to fund supportive housing than to operate beds. shelter, which he says cost about $250 per person per night.
“We have to address some of the challenges that create homelessness,” Tanner said.
Withers, the housing advocate, is skeptical of the transition roadmap – arguing that the city has seen “unprecedented” resources and effort during the pandemic, but has still struggled to house people.
Withers and Gru expressed concern about the double occupancy of some smaller hotel sites, with Withers pointing to findings that double bunking in prison cells has led to increased incidents of violence. “Placing strangers in rooms together behind a closed and potentially locked door is a real recipe for disaster,” Withers said.
Tanner, in response, said the city already has double bunking in at least one hotel, as well as many other lodging sites.
Speaking of the roadmap, he presented the current situation as a unique opportunity to help people get out of the shelter network.
“We have thousands of people living well in single hotel rooms…and we’re demonstrating that they can live in accommodation if we provide them with the support they need to be successful.”
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