Helping someone who is experiencing homelessness in Toronto gain access to an indoor place to stay can be “like a gladiator’s obstacle course,” says Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker at Sanctuary, a church and community in downtown Toronto. The first challenge is the lack of available indoor space, and obstacles continue throughout the referral process.
During the pandemic, the City of Toronto opened new shelter spaces and launched programs such as Pathway Inside designed to prioritize helping people in park encampments move indoors. However, advocates say that the approach of holding empty rooms for specific encampment residents is blocking access for people who want to be inside, including people with health-related vulnerabilities.
It is not only access to shelters that pose a challenge. Preliminary findings released in a MAP: Centre for Urban Health Solutions study showed that this past winter there was a “severe lack of access to public, indoor space … even during cold weather alerts.” Researchers indicate that this is a longstanding issue in Toronto, exacerbated by the pandemic.
With summer heat approaching, lack of indoor access, both shelters and public spaces, continues to be a concern. “We know that more people die from extreme hot weather than freeze in the winter,” wrote Megan Lowry, registered nurse and member of the Street Nurses Network, in a statement to the Toronto Board of Health on April 12.
Even before all the closings and space reductions caused by COVID-19, referring someone to a shelter was a “frustrating and painstaking process,” says Lam.
When someone asks for help to access a shelter bed, Lam calls Central Intake, a city-run centralized system to access emergency shelters in Toronto. Central Intake asks a routine set of questions before looking for an appropriate match. “More often than not, they come back and say, ‘Sorry, no beds available at this time. Try again in an hour,’” says Lam. This is a barrier for people looking for shelter who may not have reliable access to a phone, and for outreach workers who don’t always have the time to call back.
This front-line experience is confirmed by data uncovered by Factcheck Toronto and the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School. Analysis of data provided by the city showed that between Oct. 30 and Feb. 28, at least 13,780 callers were unable to access a shelter bed. This number represents callers, which includes families or couples, meaning the number of people being turned away is likely even higher.
On average, 38 people a day are unable to access shelter space, challenging the city’s narrative that there is enough space for those who need it. To be sure, “Knowing the precise number of people … shouldn’t change the urgency to take action,” says Susan Bender, manager of the Toronto Drop-In Network.
“It’s hard to get an offer (of a shelter space),” says Lowry, “but then even when you do get an offer, there are logistical pieces that make it difficult for people to accept.”
Time constraints are one obstacle. Often, shelters will hold a bed for only a set amount of time. Transportation can be difficult for people already struggling with finances, and it further disadvantages those who may experience challenges related to physical mobility or cognition and planning.
‘Sorry, no beds available at this time. Try again in an hour’ an oft-heard refrain
There are also constraints around the number of bags people are allowed to bring to a shelter. Lam stated in a press conference organized by the Toronto Drop-in Network on May 18 that she was denied access to support residents whose encampment eviction was being enforced by “corporate security guards and city representatives.” Lam noted that the Streets to Homes outreach team – the team the city says offers supports to encampment residents – was not present that day.
“The city seemed to think that these encampment residents, who had just been forced to take down their homes and pack up their lives into two bags … would just hop into a cab without incident and get into a shelter, without any support,” says Lam.
There is also the obstacle of a lack of trust in the system. Lowry describes common concerns about traditional shelters, such as having a safe place to store belongings and having the freedom to come and go without worrying about institutional regulations such as curfews.
Lam says trust is often broken right from the start. People are frustrated by the experience of giving personal information to Central Intake with the hope of support and shelter, only to be told there is no bed space, or that none of their community, medical and social needs can be taken into consideration in the referral due to scarcity in the system.
Another major obstacle is that once a shelter spot is secured, there are few pathways back out. For example, Lowry says, a man in his 70s with medical conditions is staying in a congregate shelter that is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. A congregate shelter refers to traditional, dorm-style sleeping arrangements. He is interested in moving to a shelter hotel, where he could have his own private room, but has been told by Central Intake he is not eligible because he is already enrolled in a program.
Lowry says this has left the man with “impossible options” – either he stays in the high-risk congregate setting, or he spends the night sleeping on the street hoping he can get a new referral through Central Intake once he is outdoors.
At that April 12 Toronto Board of Health meeting, Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, confirmed that more than 300 beds were currently “offline, until the shelter outbreak has resolved.” Twenty homeless shelters were on outbreak as of April 27.
Lowry says Toronto Public Health “basically treats all homeless shelters the same.” The rules about outbreaks that apply to congregate settings also apply to shelter hotels, though the risks of contracting COVID-19 are different in each. “There are empty private rooms with their own washrooms, in buildings that are also on outbreak and no one can move into them,” says Lowry. “It makes no sense.”
Lowry says accessing the shelter hotel for people with medical concerns is a “tiny pathway we’ve negotiated for” but that “there’s not enough capacity in that pathway for everyone who would benefit.”
Lam says people who support encampments and those who do not have the same long-term goal – “to not have people who have to live in parks.” To achieve that, she says, people must step back and consider why some are living in parks in the first place.
Until long-term housing options are in place, says Lam, people’s basic needs, including access to clean water and washroom facilities, must be addressed.
The MAP research study identifies 24-hour coffee shops, libraries, and drop-in centres as key indoor locations that informally provided safety from the elements and access to washrooms, before COVID-19. Bender says she wishes the city would recognize that “it’s not just the shelters (that) are responding to people’s needs. It’s this range of drop-ins and other kinds of community spaces,” such as Sanctuary, and their work could be acknowledged and more appropriately funded.
Finally, Lowry advocates for a more equitable pathway from being unsheltered to finding space indoors with fewer obstacles to access and more transparency in the process. “It’s hard to go to a hotel, not knowing how long they are going to be open and whether or not it is actually a pathway to permanent housing.”