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An encampment for unhoused people at Allan Gardens in Toronto on Oct. 21.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

With winter quickly approaching, Toronto’s next mayor and council will need to address a ballooning homelessness crisis that, more than two years into a pandemic, has left thousands of people in shelters or on the street.

Homelessness and the need for more affordable housing have been significant issues throughout this year’s municipal election campaign, but as the city prepares to close some of its largest temporary overflow shelters, front-line workers say they are frustrated by the lack of plans for immediate action.

The city’s shelters are chronically full, and there are still more than 150 encampments across Toronto, with homeless people believed to number almost 10,000. Rents continue to surge, and social assistance rates remain below the poverty line. Social housing wait lists are still years long.

The crisis – interwoven with an opioid epidemic – is also growing more visible in mid-size cities and even small towns across the province, but there are few solutions on offer from political leaders.

“It’s not being talked about enough,” said Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, a Christian charity that works with the homeless.

“I know municipalities are only able to respond so much – like, most tax revenues come from the feds and the province – but I would say most of the platforms are hugely inadequate. They’re not going to address the severity of the situation.”

Mayor John Tory has said his focus is to continue the city’s push to build subsidized housing. Urbanist Gil Penalosa, who is widely seen as Mr. Tory’s main competition – but is considered a long shot – is promising to improve the shelter system within his first 100 days, partly by boosting on-site supports and limiting capacity to 90 per cent, “so that space is readily available for any and all unhoused people seeking a shelter bed.”

Mr. Cook said Mr. Tory’s push for subsidized housing would need to double or triple the supply to truly make a dent, adding that the crisis has gotten “exponentially worse during the eight years that he has been mayor.” And while the city builds up the supply of affordable housing, he said, the number of homeless people dying each year has increased significantly, from 40 or 50 five years ago to more than 200 in 2021.

Mr. Tory, who is running for a third term, said he has built more affordable housing units than his three immediate predecessors combined.

“We have built a record number of supportive housing units in the last two years. By the end of this year, it’ll be 3,800,” he said during a recent meeting with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board.

He noted that he has personally attended community meetings across the city to see those projects through to completion.

“And they all started the same way … with intense reaction on the part of the neighbours,” he said. “I stood there and just said, ‘No, this is something we have to do.’ … And they’ve all gone forward.”

“They’re actually built, and people are living in them,” he said. “So I think that’s significant. And I think it’s going to be significant going forward that we continue that work.”

As of the end of September, the city identified 9,690 “actively homeless” people (meaning they had used shelter services at least once in the past three months and had not been discharged to permanent housing).

During that same month, an average of 170 people a night inquired about a shelter bed but had to be turned away – an increase of 146 from a year earlier.

As Toronto prepares to close temporary hotel shelters, Mr. Cook said the city is planning to increase capacity in the system by moving beds closer together.

“So basically, they’re going to cram more people into enclosed spaces,” he said. “That’s their solution.”

Mr. Penalosa, an urban planner and founder of the non-profit 8 80 Cities, criticized Mr. Tory’s police-heavy handling of park encampments last summer, which cost the city millions of dollars.

“The image around the world was 150 armed police literally kicking out 13 homeless from Trinity Bellwoods,” he said. “The issue with the parks was tiny … and John Tory made it gigantic.”

Mr. Penalosa’s platform proposes that “all outreach to homeless Torontonians will be done by trained social workers, not police or private security.”

“The long-term solution has to be a home,” he said. “The medium term is human rights-based.”

Mr. Tory said refugees currently make up a third of the city’s shelter population, adding that he is in “ongoing conversations” with the federal government to find a more “thorough” solution for that cohort.

The other two-thirds, he said, are people in “genuine emergency circumstances” and the chronically homeless.

He is confident that subsidized housing units are what’s needed for long-term change.

“The challenge is going to be to keep that going and transition away from what was done by my predecessors – but, admittedly, early on, by me too – which is to just keep expanding the shelter system,” he said.

Even if the city hits its targets for building more subsidized housing, front-line workers say those units will not be built overnight and do little to help people experiencing homelessness right now.

“There’s dozens and dozens of people that are living in parks right now,” said Les Harper, the Indigenous health promoter at South Riverdale Community Health Centre. “Winter is just around the corner. Any day now, there’s going to be people freezing.”

Mr. Harper said encampments will simply be a reality until adequate alternatives become available. The city’s social housing wait list is currently more than 80,000 people long, which means it could take a decade to find a home.

“You can’t wait eight to 10 years and be on the street,” he said. “You’re going to be dead.”

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