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Rayna Slobodian lights candles before the start of a memorial for six homeless people on Feb. 12, 2019 at the Church of the Holy Trinity.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Daniel Thwaites has been homeless on and off for seven years. The 38-year-old has gotten, and lost, five jobs in that time.

He has been let go for having no permanent address; he once missed a job interview because he wasn’t allowed to set an alarm in an emergency shelter; and he says he cannot afford a place to live in Toronto.

“Every time you stick your head out of the hole, someone’s there to kick you right back down,” he said.

Mr. Thwaites’s challenges illustrate the larger struggle Toronto faces in trying to help the thousands of people without a home in the city. Shelters are at capacity and new individuals continue to enter the system, but hardly any manage to get out. And the waiting lists for those who need supportive housing are long. While cities and countries around the world, from Montreal to Finland, have found innovative solutions to combat chronic homelessness, Toronto remains stuck.

“We have tried the same old things for decades in Toronto,” said Kira Heineck, executive lead of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness. “We haven’t moved the needle on chronic homelessness. In fact, the numbers are going up.”

Her organization is one of many that are working on a plan to bring the numbers down.

According to the Toronto’s Street Needs Assessment, a survey and count of the roughly 9,000 experiencing homelessness on the night of April 26, 2018, half of the respondents reported being homeless for more than six months, meeting the federal definition of chronically homeless. The city continues to add beds to its emergency shelter system – it has 2,800 more than it did on Nov. 1, 2016 – but they are full every night.

Of those surveyed, 94 per cent expressed a desire for permanent housing. But there is a 1.1-per-cent vacancy rate in Toronto’s rental market, and waiting times for “supportive housing” are approximately five to seven years. Supportive housing units are permanent homes that also provide on-site services, such as mental-health counselling.

In addition to long waiting lists, tenants of the city’s remaining affordable units are losing their homes. Evictions for renovations – also called “renovictions” – are happening constantly throughout the city, said lawyer Jonathan Robart, who added that many of these people are being evicted directly into homelessness.

“I can say with absolute certainty that the problem is so much worse than it used to be, and it was never good to begin with,” he said.

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Rachel Robinson cries while attending the memorial.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The politics of affordability

Mayor John Tory’s newly approved Housing Now plan promises to turn 11 city-owned sites into new units, with about 3,700 out of 10,000 units reserved for affordable housing. Under the city’s definition, affordable housing must cost 80 per cent or less of average market rent, which remains unaffordable for many low-income people. The plan also calls for at least 10 per cent of the affordable units to be offered at 40 per cent or less of market rent.

Advocates and several city councillors have called on the mayor to declare a state of emergency over homelessness, a motion that failed at city hall last month. A state of emergency would allow the mayor to act without council approval, according to the city’s emergency plan. Advocates argued it would put pressure on the federal and provincial governments to provide funding and assistance.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s National Housing Strategy promised to deliver $40-billion over 10 years to help provide Canada’s most vulnerable residents with safe and accessible housing. It was released on Nov. 22, 2017. Despite a request from the city, Toronto has received no funding from the NHS for new projects to date.

Without access to affordable or supportive housing, the homeless are often forced into the emergency shelter system, especially in cold weather. But many consider the conditions to be substandard. In November, Mr. Thwaites stayed at one of the city’s emergency respite centres.

“There’s blood splattered on the walls and needles everywhere,” he said. “When the weather’s nice, I’ve slept better in the alcove of the entrance of a store than in a shelter.”

Last year, city council approved a motion to build 1,000 permanent shelter beds over three years with the goal of having smaller shelters to prevent crowding and having services embedded to provide a pathway out of homelessness. But many argue that shelter beds are simply not enough.

“Where the city’s going to have to step up is in the world of supportive housing,” said Councillor Joe Cressy. “Traditionally, supportive housing has been seen as the role of the provincial government, but we realize we’ve fallen into a vicious cycle where the province isn’t building supportive housing and we just keep building shelter beds and in the end, no one’s ending chronic homelessness."

But many are determined to make a difference. The Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness (TAEH) is a coalition of organizations on the front lines of the crisis that have come together because they want to end homelessness, not manage it, Ms. Heineck said.

Zero TO is their plan to attain “functional zero,” which means more people exiting the housing and support system than entering it and more capacity in the system than people who are experiencing homelessness, by 2025.

They are trying to get city council to endorse Zero TO as its main approach.

“It would be silly to say that we would never have any homelessness,” Ms. Heineck said. “But it should be rare, brief and non-reoccurring.”

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After the memorial, a group of around 70 people left the Church of the Holy Trinity, to march to Toronto city hall.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Starting with a list of names

To accomplish this goal, Ms. Heineck said TAEH hopes to create and maintain one by-name list of all the people who experience homelessness in the city, including when they enter the system, what services and supports they require and when they leave.

Next, a co-ordinated access system is required. This is a standardized process for access, assessment and referral to housing and support services across all homelessness-related organizations in the city. A standardized way of assessing people’s needs to properly match them with the right housing, addiction and mental-health services is also needed, Ms. Heineck said.

The final step is prevention and diversion. Ms. Heineck said the information gathered by the by-name list will allow for better planning and intervention before individuals become chronically homeless.

Greg Seraganian, a spokesman for the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, said “the SSHA currently has a shelter-management information system, which will serve as an existing foundation from which to build out our co-ordinated access system capabilities." He also said the city has requested funding from the federal government’s Community Capacity and Innovation fund for the development of co-ordinated access, but it has yet to receive a response.

Mr. Cressy said he has worked closely with TAEH and fully supports its campaign, but that political will and resources from all three levels of government are required to truly end chronic homelessness.

Other jurisdictions have already started using this system, and Ms. Heineck said it works. She said Hamilton, for example, has reduced homelessness by 25 per cent by addressing people’s needs in one consistent way.

In Montreal, the Old Brewery Mission provides emergency, support and housing services to the city’s homeless as well as those at risk of becoming homeless. In 2013 alone, Montreal transitioned more than 600 homeless individuals back into society.

Internationally, some countries have also managed to move the mark on chronic homelessness. Between 2008 and 2015, Finland reduced homelessness by 35 per cent, simply by giving people permanent homes first, with no strings attached, and providing them with mental-health and addiction-support services.

According to the city of Toronto, an average of two people experiencing homelessness die each week. This includes all deaths, not just those from exposure.

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Cathy Crowe, a street nurse, displays video of one of Toronto's respite centres, while waiting in Toronto mayor John Torys office.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Rafi Aaron, spokesman for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, said the current situation is too urgent to just focus on ending homelessness. He said the emphasis has to be on providing more shelters, or people will continue to die.

“The reason that these beds are filling is because nothing has been done in decades,” Mr. Aaron said. “You have a disaster happening. You can’t just close the emergency room.”

He added that building the appropriate housing will take years, so for now it’s important to focus on how to shelter people. “You don’t warehouse them,” he said. “You shelter them in places where there will be washrooms and showers and lockers for their stuff so that they’re secure.”

In the meantime, Mr. Thwaites is hoping for an opportunity to get his life back on track. He has watched his résumé get thrown in the garbage after he told an employer he doesn’t have a permanent address.

“I don’t want to get another job just to lose it because I don’t have a place,” he said. “It leaves you depressed, it leaves you angry.”

Given the right opportunity and the means to turn his life around, Mr. Thwaites said “you wouldn’t see [him] back in the system.”

If he can ever escape the homelessness cycle, he said he’ll open a food truck and sell rice bowls.

“If you empower the bottom of the chain,” he said, “it gets better the whole way up.”

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