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Demonstrators in support of the homeless shelters that have opened in Midtown Toronto march towards a seperate rally protesting the shelters on August 15, 2020.

yader guzman/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor John Tory is calling for cash from the federal and provincial governments to fund the lion’s share of a $1-billion plan that would transform the city’s emergency shelter system and build 3,000 permanent housing units for the homeless in two years.

The plans, to be considered by a city hall committee next week, come after the city was forced to lease hundreds of hotel rooms in order to space out its cramped homeless shelter system as the threat of COVID-19 loomed. The scramble has seen the city’s costs balloon from $3,000 a month for a traditional shelter bed to double that, Mr. Tory said.

With the pandemic a fact of life for now, city officials say it makes more financial sense to actually purchase hotels and make them into permanent housing for the homeless. The goal is to quickly create more “supportive housing,” or accommodations that include services such as mental health or addiction counselling.

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And compared to the bills the city faces now, even housing with these kinds of services for the homeless built-in is much cheaper: A typical unit of supportive housing in a studio apartment costs on average just $2,000 a month, the mayor said.

“What you have here is a clear, moral case to act – we’ve always had that – together with a solid business case for doing it in this way, both because it saves lives and makes quality of life better and because it saves governments money and creates jobs and economic activity, all at the same time," Mr. Tory told a news conference on Tuesday.

Toronto’s plans include a request for $200-million in funding from other governments to accelerate the city’s existing fast-track program to build “modular housing” for the homeless, with a goal to build 1,000 such units in two years. The city’s first 110 such units are due to open this fall, and Toronto has committed $228.5-million in land and cash for the project.

It also calls for $475-million to purchase hotels and other properties, or for renovations of existing shelters, to create 1,000 units. And it calls for the housing of 1,000 more people in private rental market apartments using an expansion of existing rent supplement programs, at a cost of $3.5-million in 2020 and $7-million a year afterward.

Cathy Crowe, a nurse and long-time advocate for Toronto’s homeless, said even more needs to be done, as the economic aftereffects of COVID-19 will only push more people onto the streets: “It sounds like a lot, 3,000 units in 24 months … but that’s just a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s coming down the tube, and who’s becoming homeless."

Spokespeople for both federal and provincial governments responded to questions about the city’s plan on Tuesday by listing money they have already handed to the city for homelessness and vowing to continue to help, without explicitly committing more. City officials have said the cheques so far will not cover the extra costs of Toronto’s emergency response, and that more is needed. Mr. Tory said that he and other mayors are hoping for cash in the minority Liberal federal government’s Throne Speech.

Toronto Liberal MP Adam Vaughan praised the city’s new homelessness plan for recognizing that shelters are no longer the answer and said he has been urging his government to act even before the coming Throne Speech. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities recently called for Ottawa to launch a $3.5-billion fund that would allow municipalities to acquire and retrofit buildings for housing.

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