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A homeless encampment in Toronto's Alexandra Park on March 20, 2021.Chris Young

Jason Costate recently passed his one-year anniversary off drugs like crystal meth and fentanyl – a period of sobriety that began when he moved into a Toronto hotel-turned-shelter.

Before arriving at the site at what was previously the Strathcona hotel in downtown Toronto, Costate had been kicked out of three shelters for fighting. But, he said, the privacy and dignity of having his own room at the Strathcona helped him get back on his feet.

“I do my (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings over Zoom, I have my one-year chip for sobriety, I have sponsors now,” said Costate, a crane operator. “I’m on methadone and I want to go back to work.”

The city began using hotels for those experiencing homelessness after hundreds fled shelters in March 2020 for fear of contracting COVID-19. The hotels offered an alternative to encampments that cropped up in parks and additional space for physical distancing.

Strathcona residents told The Canadian Press the hotel offered a sense of dignity many hadn’t experienced in years at typical shelters: they could close their own doors, use the bathroom in privacy, or just look at themselves in the mirror.

Experts have urged the city to explore permanently converting some hotels to shelters, arguing that in addition to obvious social benefits, stable housing for people experiencing homelessness also makes economic sense by reducing shelter and healthcare costs.

But the city is pressing ahead with its plan to wrap up the hotel program by the end of 2023. Most of the hotel leases expire at the end of April, but the city is seeking some extensions to ease the transition.

Last week, Costate and other Strathcona residents were told they would have to relocate by April 12, with the city saying it was working to find them permanent housing or other shelter spots.

Costate said the shelter provider only gave him a day’s notice to move and offered to pay for his cab to a shelter in Scarborough – about 17 kilometres away from his current location, where he has a network of support, including his pharmacist.

“Everybody’s worried because they’ll just come up to you and give you notice that you’re leaving today,” he said. “They’ve already shipped so many people out.”

Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration said approximately 106 residents, including 13 couples, at the Strathcona are being moved to other shelter sites to make room for 130 youths staying at another shelter hotel – the Hilton Garden Inn – set to close at the end of April. The Hilton Garden Inn’s owner has decided to resume hotel operations later this year, according to city spokeswoman Erin Whitton.

“Moving as many people as possible into permanent housing is the priority,” said Whitton. “Shelter residents are encouraged to continue working with staff to develop and implement permanent housing plans.”

But Costate said there’s been no progress on finding him housing, despite being told the Strathcona program would be a pathway towards a permanent home. “I have no faith in the city,” he said. “I’ve been on a housing list for so long.”

For Diana Chan McNally, a harm reduction case manager at the non-profit All Saints Church, years-long waitlists for supportive housing and a shortage of shelter spaces mean some residents could end up back on the streets, an outcome experienced by some of her clients after the Novotel Hotel Centre wound down shelter operations in December.

“We should have done more to actually expropriate and purchase these spaces, keep people where they are because that’s always the safest and healthiest thing to do,” she said.

Converting hotels to shelters during the pandemic came at a cost.

A May 2022 report from the city’s auditor general said that “in 2021, approximately $320 million was spent on shelter operations at hotels, including about $118 million for hotel rooms and $29 million for meals.”

But Dr. Andrew Boozary, the executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said the hotel program amounted to good policy from both a health and economic perspective.

Hotel shelters reduced COVID’sspread, cut emergency room visits and hospital admissions while also fostering improvements in mental health and chronic disease management, he said.

“And it comes with sound economics,” he added, citing city data that shows providing emergency shelter spaces is more expensive than supporting stable housing.

“I truly believed that the hotel response would create the pathway to permanent housing,” said Boozary. “I remember sitting there thinking, there’s no way we go back now. People have seen the cruelty of homelessness and the reality that has been denied for far too many people.”

Boozary said relocating hotel residents is dangerous because demand for shelter spaces is higher than before the pandemic, meaning people will face more uncertainty, as well as higher risk of contracting infectious diseases like COVID.

A policy that “shuttles” people around and offers no predictability of where someone will sleep “the next night or month most definitely results in poor health outcomes and just cuts against core principles of human dignity,” he said. “The massive disruption is really cruel.”

Toronto Public Health data shows an average of more than three people experiencing homelessness died every week in 2022.

For the unhoused population, the data put life expectancy at 55 for men and 42 for women in 2022, compared to 79 for men and 84 for women in the general population.

Shelter hotels aren’t a perfect solution.

Boozary and Chan McNally noted increased overdose deaths due to some residents using drugs behind closed doors. But both said the improvements to quality of life compared to shelter living, or living in public spaces, were undeniable.

“If we don’t actually act on the evidence and the compassion that’s needed, we are going to impose so much suffering,” Boozary said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this, in terms of how dire the situation is for people and populations that are unhoused.”