Sheltering Canada’s homeless

“I’d do whatever I had to do to stay warm” recalls David, who was homeless on Toronto’s streets from 2000 to 2003. David said he spent the winter nights in emergency shelters, and bitter cold days in bank ATM lobbies or riding around on public transit. “Survival was tough” he says, describing everyday life on the streets marked by the struggle – to meet basic needs and against addictions.

Spending the Canadian winter on the streets

Every day and night, there are about 30,000 people across Canada who are homeless. They are among the most vulnerable – homeless people have higher rates of infectious diseases like HIV, mental illness and addictions, and much higher death rates than the average Canadian.

For more statistics on Canada’s homeless population, click here or on the infographic from the State of Homeless in Canada 2013 report.


The struggle for survival is often most pressing during the winter months when temperatures in Canadian cities can plunge to -30 degree celsius and below. Environment Canada warns that at temperatures with a wild chill of  -29 to -39 degree celsius, exposed skin can freeze in 10-30 minutes with subsequent hypothermia and frostbite.

There have been a number of reported deaths of homeless people from exposure across Canadian cities this year. Statistics Canada tracks deaths from exposure to excessive natural cold. Across Canada in 2011, there were 95 deaths from exposure, with these deaths occuring twice as often in men than women. Some researchers have suggested that this reflects the population of homeless men on Canadian streets who are more likely to die from exposure. While the number of deaths from exposure are small,  many advocates ask why these deaths, as well as exposure-related injuries or illnesses, are still happening at all.

“How is it that in a country as wealthy as ours, we leave vulnerable people outside during harsh winters?” asks Tim Richter, CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Expanding emergency shelter capacity in extreme weather

All Canadian cities have emergency shelters in place– which house about 14, 400 people on any given night. Emergency shelters are defined as facilities to meet immediate, short term needs of homeless people, and are not intended for long stay, with clients expected to leave each morning. The rest of Canada’s homeless population is split between other forms of shelter – such as a women’s shelters, hospitals or hostels.

However, there are nearly 3,000 Canadians who sleep outdoors each night. This population is described as ‘sleeping rough’ and is often resistant to staying in shelters, or use shelters as a last resort.

David says that during his time on the streets, he knew many people who “couldn’t handle being in shelters” because of personal safety concerns, as well as an inability to comply with the shelter rules which they viewed as restrictive. There is variability in shelter restrictions – but they can include no in and out privileges between certain hours, no drug or alcohol use and separation from personal belongings. Shelters can also be a place where diseases like tuberculosis are spread, and bed bugs can be rampant.

Stephen Gaetz, Director of the Canadian Homeless Research Network at York University says “being thrust into congregant living environments can be unsafe and challenging.”

Across Canadian cities when extreme cold weather, as well as oppressive hot weather, hits – cities expand emergency shelter capacity and deploy emergency response teams and resources.

In Calgary, the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program which does year-round mobile outreach, has a winter response program which includes additional checks on known homeless encampments or people sleeping outdoors, and offers them transport to shelter beds at any time of day or night.

Phil Abrahams, general manager of Shelter, Support & Housing Administration for the City of Toronto describes how the city puts in place an extreme cold weather alert when the temperature is forecast to hit -15 or below. This alert triggers the opening of additional shelter beds, as well as a request to  relax shelter restrictions, including that shelters stay open during the day to allow people to stay indoors.

Abrahams adds that during alerts  ‘warming centres’ are opened in select public buildings to provide people with a warm place for a hot drink off the streets. These are modeled on ‘cooling centres’ put in place during sweltering summer days and heat alerts. He says warming centres are “staffed to help coordinate getting people into emergency shelter beds.”

Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse and cofounder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee has been highly critical of Toronto’s warming centres, suggests that more resources need to be in place at these centres.

“We know that each time warming centres open, people come” Crowe says. “It saves lives and reaches out to people who are alienated from social services and allows for potential referrals to shelters and other services.”

Crowe points to warming centres filling up as a sign that “we are way beyond capacity in the shelter system.” She says that expanded services during cold weather alerts should be sustained beyond these periods of extreme weather. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) agrees with this assessment, pointing to a figure that the voluntary, charity-based Out of the Cold Program, which opens additional shelter beds in Toronto churches and synagogues is at 111% capacity. A recent OCAP news release argues that Out of the Cold overcapacity “speaks volumes about the overcrowding and conditions in the regular shelters.”

While some argue that more capacity is needed in shelters, many are saying governments and organizations shouldn’t devote the majority of resources to what amounts to a “band-aid” solution for homelessness. There is a growing consensus among advocates and researchers that what is needed to help keep homeless people out of the cold are longer-term solutions.

Stephen Hwang, physician and scientist at the Centre for Inner City Health at St Michael’s Hospital says that “while it’s important to take steps to prevent frostbite or hypothermia among the homeless, it is more or equally as important to address the problem of homelessness itself.”

Moving away from “band aid solutions” to homelessness

A 2012 study found that there were nearly 400 shelters across Canada’s provinces and territories. Shelters are operated by a patchwork of organizations, and are generally run by not-for-profit, religious or charitable groups that are partially funded through government dollars, as well as charitable donations. Along with emergency shelters, outreach organizations, affordable housing agencies, health care, social welfare and the justice system all provide programs and services to the homeless.

Tim Richter characterizes the patchwork of services and programs for the homeless as a “disconnected system of crisis response.”

He argues that the shelter system, designed as a short-term, emergency response to the homeless crisis, has become institutionalized, and that there needs to be a shift in thinking around service design and coordination.

Richter advocates for shelters as being the front door to a more permanent solution of housing and social supports. “Shelters are the emergency room for the homeless” he says, and should be thought of as “a part of a system designed for intake, triage and short stay where people can move on to a space that is more appropriate and permanent.”

Experts like Richter point to Alberta as leading the way in developing more effective, long-term solutions towards homelessness.

In 2009, the province established a Secretariat for Action on Homelessness with the goal to eradicate homelessness in 10 years. This included major investments in housing, as well as bringing together government ministries and services like health, corrections and child protection for program and service development.

As part of this work, seven Alberta cities developed multi-year plans to end homelessness. These plans focused on providing the provinces’ homeless with housing options and social supports to keep them housed.

Steve Gaetz applauds what he describes “a leap forward that has rapidly resulted in a difference” to the lives of people experiencing homelessness in Alberta. Results of the provincial commitment to end homelessness have included 6,600 Albertans who had been experiencing homelessness that have been provided with housing and social support.

Rather than expanding emergency shelter capacity, Alberta has seen a 10% reduction in emergency shelter use province-wide since 2008.

Whether other Canadian provinces and cities can follow Alberta’s lead remains to be seen. However, it appears that approaches are slowly changing. With successes seen in research programs like At Home/Chez Soi and Streets to Home, all of which provide homeless people with housing and social support, there is growing interest in dealing with the causes of homelessness, rather than managing it as a crisis.

“The best way that we can manage capacity in the shelter system is to do things to reduce demand” says Phil Abrahams. He says this can happen “by making progress on the alternatives to emergency shelters, like various forms of supportive housing.”

Where should governments invest resources to help deal with homelessness?

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  1. Cathy Crowe

    This statement: “Abrahams adds that during alerts ‘warming centres’ are opened in select public buildings to provide people with a warm place for a hot drink off the streets.” is not true. Centres – plural does not happen. For the entire month of January there were 4 extreme cold alerts called and only one warming centre (Metro Hall) that opened.

  2. Michael

    There are other places in Canada that often don’t get that much attention when it comes to homelessness and or people at risk of being homeless, one place is in western Labrador, there’s a lack of affordable housing in Labrador City/Wabush and no emergency shelters for men with no family. Over the winter of 2014 that area of Canada saw -45c weather. The federal government isn’t doing enough to help that area of Canada where the need for low income housing is great. Those without shelter in western Labrador could be in a very serious and dangerous position. Montreal is another area that needs help then of course the other areas of Canada in the arctic and even above the arctic circle without a doubt aren’t getting nearly enough help either, the cost of everything has gone to the roof. Change needs to happen. There are too many homeless people not getting the help they need. The high price of gasoline is also making the problems worse because that also drives up the cost of food which means the poor aren’t able to eat a healthy diet like they should be which leads to poor health. As Canadians we can do better than this.

  3. Niall Horan

    Homelessness is a big issue that needs more support.
    -Niall Horan

  4. Cindy Backen

    The article hits the nail on the head in that we need longer term solutions to homelessness like affordable housing, harm reduction housing services and jobs that supply liveable wages. Many working poor people are at risk of being homeless not because of addiction but due to a lack of affordable housing. We are talking about basic necessities like food and shelter security, things that we all want for ourselves. We have invested in maternal health care in Africa when we do not look after issues at home. While I believe both are important, we have people who are suffering on our own streets.

    • Marilyn Atchison

      Hi: I live in Calgary Ab, which is one of the wealthyst places in Canada. Well guess what , there are a lot of homeless people that live here. They are all over the place, either due to some kind of mental illness, no job, or people that are on drugs. My son is one of them, who I have tried to get him hospitalized on numerous occasions and have failed. I am very angry at the way our wonderful Government chooses to spend money on totally useless things and overlooks poor and mentally ill people, and by sending money to help countries when our own people should come first. Calgary needs more affordable housing, more health care workers to check up on people, and we need it now. I’m sure a lot of Canadians across the country are in the same situation as here.

  5. G.

    This article seems somewhat well-meaning, but ill-informed. Alberta is a terrible example to illustrate progress on the issue of homelessness. The real reason shelters are less used in Alberta has a lot more to do with personal safety, let alone human dignity, than there not being so much of a need. There are more people camping by the river in Edmonton than ever before, to provide just one example. The Alberta goverment’s general policy of “spoils only for the rich” is perfectly illustrated in my own experience, whereby I was discharged from unforeseen , emergency surgery on doctor’s orders not to work, and yet there was nothing for me at Social Services, not even just as a “band-aid” because I was unable to prove I had any ‘proper’ address. Go ahead and judge me until it happens to you, and I don’t see why it couldn’t.

  6. Terri

    Fixed incomes of seniors, who have made Canada an open and inviting place, has left them priced out of their homes by Canadian banks laundering foreign real estate investments the banks have neglected to report to police. With the bump up in amounts on mortgages, this invites even more illegal money from foreign investments to drive home prices out of reach of all, but the elite Canadians.

    The old excuse that the homeless population are mostly made up of addicts, is actually hate speech meant to demonize the homeless (mostly Native) and blame them for their plight, instead of the real culprits, our banks constant unreported money laundering of foreign real estate investments by landlords who pay no taxes whatsoever, as they live outside of Canada. The poor have traditionally had low paying jobs, jobs that now are filled almost exclusive with the help of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, instead of our poor.

    Canada and the USA, are among the only developed countries to not provide a national housing strategy. To make matters worse, when our homeless obtain tents (on their own) and try to erect tent cities for a bit of dry warmth and safety, we order our police to destroy them, all the while sending $100,000,000 to provide tent cities for refugees facing winter in the middle eastern climate and patting ourselves on our backs for “caring”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canada is simply not a caring country and the interest in “helping” refugees has more to do with a cheap labour force than good will.

    Once the TPP is passed, it will be the middle class’s turn to be replaced in the workforce, by new comers who are well educated and will work for less. Maybe then homelessness will matter to the middle class, but there will be no one left to stand up for them. The poor and homeless will die as winter is a weapon of mass destruction our government is wielding against Canadian homeless.

  7. Terry

    I think society as a whole needs to be more informed about the homeless. Homeless people should not be looked upon as lazy or drunkards, thieves, drug addicts. Homeless people are exactly that ( PEOPLE ). Homeless people need help not unfair and unjust criticism. Take a tour of a homeless shelter and talk to these people about why they are homeless instead of making judgement on them.

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