Advocates are calling on the city to keep warming centres open all winter long, saying unhoused people face real danger as the temperature remains below freezing.
The city opened four warming centres last Tuesday, which provided a total of 177 spaces that ended up being at or over capacity over the weekend. This morning, the city announced it is opening an additional warming centre at 5 p.m. at 58 Cecil St.
The centres provide walk-in access to a safe, warm place to rest and snacks for those who may be experiencing homelessness.
Lorraine Lam, outreach worker and organizer for the advocacy group Shelter and Housing Justice Network, said on Monday it is not surprising that the warming centres were full.
Lam said homelessness is on the rise but the volume of services is not increasing. The result is a crisis, she said. Keeping warming centres open around the clock seven days a week would help, she added.
“The risk of harm is actually very high and so people’s lives are really at stake here,” Lam said.
“For people that I know who are stuck outside, they are doing their best to stay warm. People are trying to find warmth where they can,” she added.
“I know somebody who rides the subway to stay warm throughout the day and as long as they can at night. People are going to the mall, to the libraries. Some folks are sitting at hospital emergency rooms just waiting for an option.”
Cold temperatures arrived in Toronto over the weekend, with the weather feeling like – 20 at times with the wind chill. The cold comes as vulnerable people struggle to find spaces in the city’s overwhelmed shelter system.
No promises from mayor
City councillors voted last year to lower the threshold for when warming centres are opened to – 5 C or when freezing rain, snow or storm warnings are issued. Warming centres opened last winter only when temperatures dipped to –15 C, or – 20 C in Toronto.
Rafi Aaron, spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, said he’s worried that unhoused people sleeping outside will die from hypothermia or suffer frostbite injuries. He said all levels of government need to act because homelessness is a public emergency.
“We need to have continuously open 24-hour warming centres. That’s the first thing throughout the entire winter, serving hot meals, low barrier, that people will come in and use them,” Aaron said.
“We also need to support people in encampments. If the city is turning away this many people, evicting people only forces them into ravines.”
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow, speaking to reporters after a tour of Covenant House on Monday, said the city is working to create more spaces for unhoused people in its shelter system. Covenant House is an agency that serves youth who are homeless.
Chow said the city could consider keeping the warming centres open, but she made no promises, saying “everything is a bit stressed” currently.
“We’ve never had so many people living in shelters — we have 10,000 people. For us, every day is a challenge because we are creating more and more, whether it’s a respite centre, more warming centre hours, more shelter beds, everything. We just keep expanding,” Chow said.
Warming centres act as ‘surge capacity,’ official says
Gord Tanner, general manager of the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration, said warming centres act as “surge capacity” for the city’s shelter system during cold snaps.
“We are always looking for more opportunities to shelter additional people who are looking for support,” Tanner said.
Covenant House Executive Director Mark Aston said the agency saw a 60 per cent increase in visits to its drop-in centre and a 30 per cent increase in young people needing emergency support last year.
“If we fail to address the issue of youth homelessness, what we get is more chronic adult homelessness,” he said.
According to city data, 10,607 people were actively homeless in the last three months in Toronto. An average of 245 people a night were unable to secure a bed in the city’s shelter system in November. And a total of 9,873 people stayed in its shelters on Sunday night.
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