Toronto unveiled its shelter plan Tuesday for the first winter of COVID-19, replacing the former Out of the Cold program with hotel beds, introducing new warming centres and putting plastic barriers in double occupancy hotel rooms and at a respite site on the CNE grounds.
In all, the plan calls for 560 new spots: 150 new hotel program beds; 100 beds at two modular sites scheduled to open in November and December; 120 units for women on Church Street, scheduled to open by early December; and 100 beds in the CNE respite site.
There will also be 90 hotel beds specifically in lieu of Out of the Cold, the program that provided overnight shelter in a variety of locations in previous winters. That program has been deemed unfeasible due COVID-19 guidelines.
The plan increases the number of spaces for available to Toronto’s homeless through the winter for the fifth year in a row, the city said.
Some outreach workers expressed concern that the plan leaves the city with fewer shelter beds this winter compared to last, pointing to the loss of roughly 1,000 beds from sites being forced to reduce their capacity to adhere to pandemic distancing rules.
Mary-Anne Bédard, general manager of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, said that the loss was mostly in temporary refugee beds, which haven’t been in as high demand with current border restrictions.
The city will have more beds available this winter for single individuals than it had in the middle of last year’s cold season, she said, “where the majority of the pressure is in our system.”
Bédard said that will be the case even taking into account the increase in beds mid-way through last winter from 485 new spots to more than 600.
Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Toronto’s Sanctuary Ministries, still believes the increase won’t be “nearly enough” to handle the pressures this winter — especially if the opening of the modular construction sites are delayed.
One piece of welcome news to homelessness advocates was the increase to four warming centres this winter instead of one. Street nurse Cathy Crowe said it was “badly needed,” and expressed hope that they would provide hot meals rather than options like coffee and granola bars. “The people coming in here are going to be the most vulnerable,” she said.
Bédard said meals would be provided in shelter, respite and hotel sites, and that the warming centres would provide people with warm beverages and snacks.
Having more warming centres was partly triggered by the loss of Out of the Cold sites that were more spread out across the city, Bédard said. People living in encampments outside the downtown core are thought more likely to come inside on the worst winter nights if they don’t have to travel to the central part of the city to access a warming site.
Two of the warming sites have yet to be finalized, but Bédard said the city was looking at spaces in North York and Scarborough. The other two will be downtown.
Several outreach workers believe Tuesday’s plan doesn’t include adequate protections for encampment residents.
“They need to help fortify the encampments, help with fire safety plans, help with getting food and warmth and supplies,” said Kimberly Curry, executive director of the charity Seeds of Hope. “I know that’s a tricky thing for them because they’re supporting something they already deemed unsafe, but people have to survive.”
Throughout the pandemic, the city has said that indoor spaces are safer than the encampments that have increasingly sprung up in public parks and other areas — an assertion being challenged in the courts.
Tuesday’s plan says that street outreach staff will hand out blankets and sleeping bags to people staying outside, but only during extreme cold weather alerts.
Providing supports exclusively in the worst weather puts pressure on non-profits and groups like the Encampment Support Network, Crowe said.
Crowe also raised concerns with the use of the plastic barriers between beds, saying that they could create a false sense of security.
She also worries about the 100-person occupancy of the planned respite at the Better Living Centre on the CNE grounds, and said she doesn’t believe double occupancy should happen in the hotel programs except for couples.
Sanctuary’s Cook agreed: “If they’re going to open up anything new, it needs to be one person per hotel room or permanent housing.”
Bédard said some encampment residents who either shared tents or had been living close to one another had specifically asked whether they could move into hotel rooms together.
“We want to really be able to acknowledge the importance of social connection during a time when it’s very stressful and there’s a lot of extra anxiety. People move into rooms and feel further isolated from their family of choice … that can have consequences for mental health,” Bédard said.
Concerns had also been raised about individuals using drugs alone, she said — in the shelter hotels especially — with no one around to intervene if they overdosed.
As recently reported by the Star, the city believes that 16 deaths connected to the shelter system between January and August were overdoses — including nine that took place in July alone.
Bedard said the plastic barriers are designed to add an extra layer of protection in dual occupancy hotels and the CNE respite. While people will be asked to wear masks inside facilities, there will be long periods when they’d be unmasked while sleeping or resting.
As of Monday afternoon, the city was reporting two shelters with active COVID-19 cases — one case at Strachan House and six at the Kennedy House Youth Shelter. Bédard acknowledged that with cases on the rise in Toronto they may see more throughout the winter.
“When there is broad community spread, we are likely to see it in all areas of our community, and that includes our homeless population,” she said.
This content was originally published here.