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A pedestrian passes a person sleeping on a grate at the corner of Wellington Street West and Bay Street in Toronto on Jan. 4, 2021. Homelessness in the city has reached crisis levels, with shelter demand at an all-time high.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As one of Toronto’s largest temporary hotel shelters prepares to close its doors next week, residents and anti-poverty advocates say they are faced with an impossible choice: go back to dorm-style shelters at a time when COVID-19 is still a real threat, or pitch tents outside just as winter sets in.

More than 250 people have been staying at the Novotel on the city’s Esplanade since the hotel was converted into an emergency homeless shelter in February, 2021. It was one of dozens set up across the city after community organizers pressed the local government to spread out the shelter population and protect them from the virus.

But everyone must move out by Dec. 6, because the city’s lease is expiring at the end of the month and the building’s owner is preparing to resume normal hotel operations next year. The city has been relocating residents since October, with 44 people remaining as of Wednesday.

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Homelessness in Toronto has reached crisis levels, with shelter demand at an all-time high. Shelter beds are scarce, and those that are available are typically in large congregate facilities that many people have spent the past two and a half years trying to avoid.

“I can’t believe that we are looking at going backward, after everything we’ve been through,” said Andrew Boozary, a family physician and executive director of social medicine and population health at the University Health Network in downtown Toronto.

Though the hotel model was not a permanent or perfect solution, it offered residents a sense of privacy and agency.

“The shelter hotels provided an opportunity, not only for people to remain safe from COVID-19, but also to have – probably for the first time in a while – their own room, with a washroom and a private door,” said Gord Tanner, head of the city’s shelter division.

He acknowledged that the closure will mean a “big change for people,” but he noted that, as emergency COVID-19 funding from the provincial and federal governments dries up, the city is “faced with tough decisions.”

The city received $105.2-million from the federal government and $451-million from the provincial government for shelter operations during the pandemic. The Novotel operations alone cost more than $33-million.

Outside the Novotel on a grey Monday afternoon in late November, a woman cried out as four police officers carried her out by her limbs after she refused to leave. She would be taken to another shelter, one of the officers told a community worker, who recorded the interaction and posted a video to social media.

Shortly after, another former resident showed the community worker the package she’d been given upon discharge: printed out Google map directions to another shelter, and a TTC voucher.

The Novotel is one of 25 temporary shelters that remain open. The city is hoping to negotiate lease extensions on the others, to keep them running until April.

The city has purchased one of the hotels it has been using as a temporary shelter – the 250-bed Bond Hotel, on Dundas Street East – along with two old motels it plans to renovate into permanent housing.

When the city stopped new admissions to the Novotel on Oct. 12, there were 260 people living in the hotel shelter. The city said in an e-mailed statement that it has placed 18 in permanent housing, and is working with another 30 to view rental housing units or sign leases. The vast majority – at least 150 – have been transferred to other shelters.

A woman who has been living at the Novotel said she was offered a permanent apartment, but declined it after she was told she would have to accept on the spot, sight unseen and with only a general description of its location. The Globe and Mail agreed not to name the woman because her family members don’t know she has been living in a shelter.

Mr. Tanner said he was not aware of this occurring, and that this is not the city’s practice.

The woman said she expects she will end up being transferred to another shelter. But she said she has a serious health condition and does not feel safe in congregate settings. As Dec. 6 approaches, she added, she feels like she’s going backward.

Mr. Tanner said the city will maintain mask protocols in its shelters, and will continue to provide access to COVID-19 vaccines. But demand for shelter beds is at an all-time high, he said. “As we head into the winter months, making that space available is going to be a top priority for us, as opposed to leaving people outside.”

Another Novotel resident, whom the Globe also agreed not to name because his family and employer don’t know he is living in the shelter, said he is holding out for permanent housing. He added that he has told housing workers he’ll take whatever he can get.

The man said he is tired of the hotel, where spontaneous wellness checks by staff keep him up all night. He works in construction, he said, and it is important for his safety that he gets proper sleep. That would be virtually impossible in a dorm setting.

Dr. Boozary warned that the closure of the hotel shelters, and the city’s continued reliance on temporary and congregate shelters, will have detrimental impacts on already-strained hospital emergency departments.

“We’re heading into a winter where shelter capacity is at virtually 100 per cent. Hundreds of people being turned away. What other options are people going to have?” he asked.

Social housing wait-lists are years long. A one-bedroom apartment in Toronto goes for more than $2,500 a month on average – which, for anyone on social assistance, is simply out of reach.

“There’s no way to disconnect the homelessness crisis from the health care crisis,” Dr. Boozary said.