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Toronto plans to set up four temporary tent-like structures at emergency shelters next winter, in an effort to avoid a repeat of this year’s scramble to accommodate rising numbers of homeless people as temperatures dropped.

The plan, announced Wednesday, comes as the city says it continues to have trouble finding suitable buildings to purchase and turn into new emergency shelters or what it calls “winter respite centres,” which are open 24 hours a day. The city’s most prominent advocate for the homeless approved of the plan but warned it should not be considered a long-term solution.

The temporary structures, made by Calgary-based firm Sprung Instant Structures Ltd., cost $2.5-million each. They consist of fabric strung over an aluminum frame, but they are insulated, heated and will be hooked up to the city’s water and sewer and electrical systems. They will also have showers, washrooms, dedicated staff and common areas with televisions.

Each shelter can house 100 people, staff say, and the same kind of structures have been used to shelter the homeless for years in San Diego. They are also used around the world as churches, classrooms, research stations and school gyms.

City officials would not precisely say where the new structures will go. They say two will be set up downtown, one in the west end and one in the east. The city plans to offer emergency respite space to 600 homeless people this winter, and about 400 will be in the new tents.

All the possible locations are city-owned, the city says. The head of the city’s shelter department, Paul Raftis, said vacant land or parking lots, not parks, are being looked at. The locations will eventually be made public and a “public engagement process” will notify nearby residents, city staff say.

Joe Cressy, a left-leaning downtown city councillor who sits on the community development committee that will discuss the plan next week, says the new structures will be much better than than the centres on offer now.

“The makeshift 24-hour respites we have had in the past have felt far too much at times like warehousing people,” Mr. Cressy said. “And that might help keep people safe from the cold, but it’s not helping them out of homelessness.”

This past winter, city officials were forced to scramble to set up new emergency respite sites, including one in the Better Living Centre, a convention centre at the city-owned Exhibition Place.

As freezing temperatures lingered, and the number of homeless seeking shelter mounted, the city was forced to accept an offer from the federal government to open its east-end Moss Park Armoury to the homeless, just weeks after Mayor John Tory and his supporters on council had voted against the idea and city officials had insisted Moss Park was unsuitable and wasn’t needed.

A report released in March by the city’s ombudsman, Susan Opler, concluded that the city’s eight hastily opened respite centres were plagued by confusion, miscommunication and substandard conditions. In one respite site, temperatures were recorded as low as 11 C, while others lacked sufficient washrooms or showers.

The new temporary structures are similar to the one used by Bayview Glen, a North York private school, for a gymnasium. City officials invited various independent agencies that run homeless shelters for a tour on Tuesday, as they may be asked to operate the new structures.

Also invited were activists from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), which staged several protests over the winter about the city’s treatment of homeless people, and long-time homelessness activist Cathy Crowe, who was among many who demanded the city open the Moss Park Armoury last winter.

She praised the temporary structures as impressive, and a creative response to a situation she says is an emergency. But she said she wonders how well they can accommodate 100 people in each tent. She also said the city needs to ensure they are well-staffed, to avoid what she said was a “Wild West” situation this year at some of the city’s respite centres, which were beset by overcrowding and violent incidents.

Ms. Crowe also said she did not think the city should be planning on using them for the long term. Instead, she said, it needs to build more proper shelters, supportive housing and affordable housing, with more funding from Queen’s Park and Ottawa.

“If we see them used for multiple years, that’s a massive failure,” Ms. Crowe said.

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