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Toronto Toronto homeless told to leave tent cities despite fact shelters operating at or over capacity

Dan, no last name given, organizes his belongings outside his shelter in tent city below the Gardiner Expressway's Spadina overpass in Toronto on Monday.

Tijana Martin

Toronto city officials are handing out notices to all those living in tent cities and other makeshift structures stating they must vacate them within 14 days, despite the fact that shelters and 24-hour respite centres across the city are already at capacity.

According to the City of Toronto’s most recent statistics, emergency shelters and centres are at 93 per cent capacity. A previous warning from city officials said they should never exceed 90 per cent for safety reasons.

“We were already at capacity a week in advance of this cold snap,” said Brian Harris, program director at St. Felix Centre, an organization operating a respite centre that opened last year.

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Tent cities, a majority of which are located at different spots under the Gardiner Expressway, have been popping up throughout the city. “Any structures illegally erected on City property, such as tents on sidewalks, will be given notice to be removed,” said Brad Ross, the city’s chief communications officer.

Last year, during an 18-month period and partially because of abnormally cold temperatures, 145 people experiencing homelessness died in Toronto, according to a report from the city. In November, 2018, the city announced it would add three new respite centres in order to prevent a reoccurrence of last winter’s crisis. The respite centres are semi-permanent tents made from fabric and fibreglass on an aluminum frame, according to the city. Conditions inside these centres are also different from regular shelters, with mats and cots being placed much closer together for instance.

St. Felix’s centre is the only one of the three that is currently open. The other two are delayed and set to open later this winter. In the meantime, the city has opened a temporary shelter at Exhibition Place.

Mr. Harris explained that when St. Felix’s centre is at capacity, staff do their best to find a bed elsewhere in the city. But Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and advocate for the city’s homeless, said that doesn’t always work.

“Technically you can always find a bed, but it doesn’t mean it’s an accessible space. There’s no transportation,” she said.

She added that each of the respite centres can fit 100 cots, but the beds are extremely close together, making the centres very crowded. There are a total of nine respite centres currently operating in Toronto.

“There’s just too many people in them for safety and health,” said Rafi Aaron, co-chair of the Beth Sholom/Beth Tzedec Out of the Cold Shelter.

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Out of the Cold is a program that helps those experiencing homelessness by providing shelter in churches and synagogues.

Mr. Aaron’s shelter has had to expand from 55 beds to 60. Last week, 59 out of 60 beds were occupied while this week the number was 56.

“The whole system is hanging by a thread,” he said, adding he believes cold weather similar to last year will turn it on its head.

Gord Tanner, director of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration, said the city believes it is prepared for the extreme cold and is continuing to try and improve the situation.

“For this winter we’ve got more space than we did last winter,” he said. “We’re on track to add 1,000 new beds by the end of 2020.”

Mr. Aaron said the city should focus on adding new social and supportive housing.

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“The real issue is that the only way to get out of this shelter and housing catastrophe that we’re facing is to build our way out,” he said, adding that there are currently 180,000 people on the waiting list for social housing.

In the meantime, Ms. Crowe said as long as the demand continues to rise, the city must add more new shelters and respite centres.

“The long term solution is housing, but in the interim we need to save lives,” Ms. Crowe said.

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