FACT: Between March 2016 and mid-February 2021, there were 10,038 reported incidents of violence in Toronto’s shelter system;1,2 therefore, claims that emergency shelter spaces are safe are unjustified.
Reported incidents of violence included physical violence, threats of death or harm, and throwing objects. In December 2020, and in January 2021 there were over 300 reported incidents of violence each month.3 Shelter residents had a 2% chance of being physically assaulted in a shelter in December 2020 and in January 2021.4 The rate of violent incidents in relation to shelter population has been increasing over the last 5 years.5 FactCheck Toronto has previously demonstrated that the “safety” of shelter spaces is not a given due to the safety threats that people can experience, which include physical violence/assault, risk of contracting diseases, theft, sexual assault, risk of overdosing, and trauma.6 The City of Toronto, however, continues to claim that Toronto shelters are safe, without providing evidence to support this claim or indicating the basis for its assessment.7
Figure 1. Violent incidents (physical assault, threats of harm and throwing objects) in Toronto’s shelter system proportional to total shelter population: March 2016-January 20218
FACT: Rising incidents of self-harm in Toronto’s shelter system are demonstrative of increasing distress. Incidents of self-harm in Toronto’s shelter system have been increasing over the last 5 years and have increased dramatically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.9Poor shelter conditions can contribute to or cause violence and/or mental health distress associated with suicidal ideation and/or (attempted) suicide.10
Figure 2. Incidents of self-harm in Toronto’s shelter system proportional to total shelter population: March 2016-January 202111
Source: Documents provided by the City of Toronto in response to a request to the City of Toronto under the Municipal Protection of Privacy and Freedom of Information Act for information regarding incidents of shelter violence, as expressed by month, from January 2016 to February 14, 2021: FOI request to the City of Toronto # 2021-00378. The dataset of incidents of violence that was provided by the City included data about incidents of physical assault (against staff and against residents), threats of death and harm, throwing objects, and self-harm, specifically. As the causes, qualities, and consequences of self-harm are typically very different from those of violence directed towards others, the data about these forms of violence are presented separately: Figure 1 presents data about incidents of physical assault, threats of death and harm, and throwing objects, while Figure 2 presents data about incidents of self-harm.
It appears the City of Toronto intentionally misled the Toronto Star about violent incidents in the shelter system. TheStar reported on January 23, 2021: “According to numbers provided to the Star by the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, there were 40 acts of violence in 2015, but that number more than tripled to 157 incidents in 2019. There was a slight drop last year, to 136 incidents. The city defines acts of violence as physical assaults or verbal threats.” However, the data the City provided via FOI request # 2021-00378, indicates that there were 2,408 violent incidents (excluding self-harm) in 2019 – over 15 times the number the City provided The Star, and 2,669 incidents in 2020 – over 20 times the number the City provided The Star. To match the definition of “violent incident” the City used when providing data to the Toronto Star, Factcheck Toronto subtracted incidents of self-harm and incidents of throwing an object from the total number violent incidents in the FOI’s dataset. Even with these incidents excluded, according to the FOI dataset, there were 1,076 incidents of violence in 2019 (7 times higher than the number given to The Star) and 1,244 incidents in 2020 (9 times higher than the number given to The Star). Re-calculating the FOI’s violent incidents data in as many statistically creative ways as possible could not produce a number of violent incidents as low as the one that the City reportedly provided to the Toronto Star. Also, contrary to what the City indicated to the Star, there was a substantial increase in violent incidents from 2019 to 2020, not a decrease, indicating that the situation is getting worse, not better as the City led TheStar to believe. Vincent, Donovan. (2021, January, 23). City alarmed by rising violence in homeless shelters, including assaults on staff.
FOI request to the City of Toronto # 2021-00378.
In December 2020, 105 shelter residents (out of a total 6,024 shelter residents in the shelter system) were physically assaulted. In January 2021, 114 (out of a total 6,100 shelter residents in the shelter system) were assaulted. To determine the risk of assault, shelter population data for December 14, 2020 and January 28, 2021 was used (the only dates during these months for which data is available on archive.org).
See Figure 1. Violent incidents include: physical assault, throwing objects, and threats of harm and exclude self-harm. Shelter average occupancy data for 2016-Feb. 2020 was taken from Monthly Occupancy, Daily Shelter Census on archive.org here and here. For shelter occupancy data for March 2020 – January 2021, the Daily Shelter Census occupancy data for the date closest to the 15th of each month that was available on archive.org was used. This methodology was adopted because the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration stopped reporting average monthly shelter occupancy data in March 2020.
See Figure 2. FOI request to the City of Toronto # 2021-00378.
The forthcoming film, We Want You to Listen, examines the housing and shelter system in Toronto through following homeless and formerly homeless women’s lives. The film provides clear evidence of the harms to mental health that shelter conditions cause, including suicidality. Witnessing violence in the shelter system (both institutional and lateral violence) is also harmful to people’s mental health; violence makes people feel unsafe and fearful of being kicked out of the shelter. Shelter Video Collective (director). (2021, forthcoming). We Want You To Listen: Shelter Video Project. Independent release by mashed economies/Shelter Video Collective. A 2016 report about the Toronto shelter system concluded that lack of privacy and personal space led to raised tensions among residents and included a survey of homeless people where 55% of respondents said they had witnessed physical or sexual violence in Toronto’s shelter system (including the Out of the Cold system) and 19% had directly experienced violence. Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. (2016). Out in the Cold: The Crisis in Toronto’s Shelter System. Also see Burke, Jeneane. (2005). Educating the Staff at a Homeless Shelter About Mental Illness and Anger Management.Journal of Community Health Nursing, 22(2), 65–76.
FACT: There were 132 encampment fires in 2020, almost half as many as the City claims, and the 132 figure includes fires where there was no property damage and there were no injuries.1 It is also likely that the 132 figure includes fire incidents that were unrelated to encampments, and is further inflated.2
The reason for this discrepancy in the number of encampment fires is that the City of Toronto has been calling “fire response events” not “fires.” Fire response events include all emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire. Even if it turns out that a suspected uncontrolled fire in an encampment is simply a false alarm, a controlled campfire, BBQ smoke, steam from a pot on a cooking stove, or even someone setting off fireworks, these “fire response events” are counted as “fires” in the City’s accounting of encampment fires, significantly inflating the number of actual fires.3 If the City were to cite “fire incidents” instead, which are defined as emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire that required fire suppression, the number of encampment fires would be significantly smaller.4 For 2020, citing the number of “fire response events” in encampments instead of “fire incidents” results an almost doubling of the number of encampment fires (253 instead of 132).
FACT: City of Toronto data about encampment fires do not take into account the significant increase in the number and size of encampments across the city since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the increase in park use overall.
Given that the number and size of encampments across the city has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic,5 and that the level of recreational park use has increased dramatically as well,6 it only makes sense that the number of notifications of suspected uncontrolled fires would also increase. Not only are there more people living in encampments who engage in activities that can involve fire (cooking, Indigenous sacred fires), but there are more recreational park users in parks who engage in activities that can involve fire and to observe the activities of those living in encampments and to notify the fire department of suspected uncontrolled fires. This context is critical when looking at encampment fire data to assess the relative safety of encampments.
Source: Document obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427. The document lists the number of “fire events” that the fire department responded to between January 2015 and February, 2021 which required fire suppression and which were classified as “fire,” “explosion” and “no loss outdoor fire” as per Ontario’s “Standard Incident Report Codes List.” A “no loss outdoor fire” is a fire that does not result in property damage or injury; no loss outdoor fires do not include “arson, vandalism, children playing, recycling or dump fires.” “No loss outdoor fires” and “fires” are not distinguished in the available data. Additional FOI requests are required to ascertain the actual number of out-of-control (outdoor) fires and explosions. Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List.”
While some “fire incidents” may be obviously “encampment fires” (such as when a tent or shelter is on fire) other “fire incidents” (such as a campfire) may simply be those that occur in parks that happen to have encampments in them. It is unclear how the distinction between a fire incident in a park and a fire incident in an encampment in a park is made. City staff have equated any activity that takes place in a park with activity that takes place in an encampment when these are not the same. See, for example, the testimony of Troy Ford, the City’s witness who spoke to fire safety, in which he interchanges parks with encampments, confuses the general area around encampments with encampments/encamped people, and blames encampment residents for events that occur in the park that there is no evidence an encampment resident was involved in. Ford, Troy. Affidavit in City of Toronto Motion Record, Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. It seems likely then, that some fire incidents that occur in parks that are unrelated to encampments may be classified as “encampment fires” if there are encampments nearby.
A freedom of information request made to the City of Toronto asked, “How many fires were there in homeless encampments, as expressed by month and year, between 2015 and the present date?” The City of Toronto responded to this request for information by providing the table, “Fire events that occurred in homeless encampment.” This table indicates that there were 253 “fire events” in homeless encampments in 2020. As the table lists the number of “fire events,” not actual fires, a follow-up was made to the City that reiterated that the request was for information about “fires” not “fire events.” This time, the City responded with a different table that listed only “fire incidents” from 2015-February, 2021. This table indicates that there were 132 “fire incidents” in homeless encampments in 2020. In an email accompanying the “fire incidents” table, the City clarified that the City understands “fire” to mean a “fire response event,” which it defines as “an emergency response to notification (alarm or call from the public) of a suspected uncontrolled fire. These events are recorded with the OFM codes associated with Fire, Pre-Fire Conditions, Controlled Burning or False Alarm.” The OFM code for “Pre-Fire Conditions” pertains to situations where no fire is present, such as an engine overheating, lightning, fireworks, a pot on a stove, and steam from cooking (see: Office of the Fire Marshall (2009).“Standard Incident Report Codes List”.) Documents obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
FACT: Every single night the City of Toronto leaves an average of 38 people who are trying to access a space in the shelter system without any inside space to go because there is no space available.
Between October 30, 2020 and February 28, 2021, at least 13,780 callers1 requesting a space in the shelter system via the City’s shelter system Central Intake line were told that there was no shelter space available – an average of 117 callers each day (1 call every 13 minutes). Callers (who are unhoused and often don’t have their own phones) are told to call back repeatedly until a bed becomes available. However, a total of 4,577 people requesting a space in the shelter system were still without an inside space to go at 4am – an average of 38 people each day. In January, 2021, the average number of people who were abandoned without a bed at 4am was even higher: 46 people a day. On four separate days in January, at least 90 people were still without a bed at 4am.2
FACT: The shelter system and the spaces offered are often inadequate, inappropriate, and/or inaccessible to the needs of people seeking shelter.
In addition to the callers told that there was no space available at the time of their call, between November 3, 2020 and February 28, 2021, there were 2,260 callers (individuals or couples) who phoned the Central Intake line, requested a shelter bed, and then declined the shelter bed that they were offered.3 Many spaces offered do not meet people’s needs in relation to distance, harm reduction services, safety, etc.4 An additional 3,646 calls were disconnected before being answered.5 Central Intake can keep people on hold for lengthy periods, which makes accessing shelter difficult for unhoused people who often have very limited telephone access.6
The 13,780 calls to Central Intake represent both individuals and couples seeking shelter, so the number of people seeking shelter who were turned away could be much higher.
Factcheck Toronto analyzed data obtained through the Municipal Protection of Privacy and Freedom of Information Act request to the City of Toronto (# 2020-01799) about its new method for collecting and coding Central Intake data. We received data covering the period of October 30, 2020 for service queue data or November 3, 2021 for wrap-up code data (when the City began collecting this data) and February 28, 2021. The data was provided to us through a partnership with the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School.
This does not include uncoded calls. There were, on average, 55 uncoded calls a day in February, 2021 (uncoded call data was not supplied for the other months). The average number of callers each day in February, 2021 who were told shelter was unavailable was 129. Accounting for couples and uncoded calls, the actual number of people represented by these calls is actually anywhere between 129 and 368 people. FOI # 2020-01799.
FACT: Parks Ambassadors displace unhoused people, making parks inequitable and unsafe for some unhoused people.
Parks Ambassador training focuses primarily on managing homeless people.1 This training includes learning protocols for dismantling every encampment Ambassadors encounter (see images 1&2 below).2 In 2019, Parks Ambassadors dismantled at least 725 encampments (see image #3 below).3 The fact that homeless people in Toronto are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, people of colour, migrants, trans and disabled people4 has serious implications when it comes to ensuring both the equitable access to public spaceand the health and safety of people who are subject to multiple intersecting forms of marginalization and discrimination.
Images 1 & 2: Slides from Parks Ambassador Program training materials
Image #3: Slide from Parks Ambassador Program training materials
FACT: Parks Ambassadors facilitate the seizure, disposal5 and destruction6 of unhoused people’s property, which not only contravenes City policy,7 but endangers people’s health, safety, and their lives.
The City admits that multiple people have had all of their possessions destroyed after being told that they could keep their belongings in the park while they settle into a shelter-hotel.8 Unhoused people’s property includes survival supplies like tents, sleeping bags, clothing, safety equipment, food, and heat sources, which are necessary for the health and safety, and possibly even survival, of people living outside. City staff claim that current City policy is that they will store and catalogue people’s belongings so that they can be retrieved at a later date;9 but for those things that are not destroyed or disposed of, the “cataloging process” does not involve any indication of who owns the property and images of the “stored belongings” appear to be piles of property cleared from encampments that have been dumped in an outdoor City parking lot(see Image 4 below).10
Image 4: Encampment Resident Property “Storage”
FACT: Parks Ambassadors are parapolice who both criminalize and enforce the criminalization of unhoused people, which makes parks unsafe and less accessible for unhoused people, and therefore inequitable.
Parapolice are police-adjacent forces like by-law officers and security guards that are tasked with managing homeless people in parks and enforcing laws which criminalize the activities that are necessary for unhoused people’s basic survival.11 Parks Ambassadors often wear uniforms that closely resemble police uniforms and work closely with police officers;12 this can make their actual authority unclear to the public, including those they are policing.7 Parks Ambassadors’ training makes it evident that their jobs involve a disproportionate focus on policing the activities of homeless people (as compared with other park users), which makes parks less equitable. The enforcement of laws that criminalize activities that are necessary for unhoused people’s basic survival makes parks unsafe for unhoused people and less accessible to them. Unhoused people are disproportionately members of marginalized groups,8 which makes their criminalization by parks ambassadors especially inequitable.
The contents listed in The Parks Ambassador Program “Executive Summary” are: Background; Expectations; Homelessness & People living in Poverty Policy; Response to Homelessness Decision Tree; Notice of Advice [encampment eviction notice]; Trespass to Property Act Letter- Suspension & Ban Policy; Park Safety Audits; Harm reduction and Open Needles in Parks; Homeless Trends. The majority of these items are directly or indirectly related to homelessness. Further, all of the training slides are bordered with photos, and on every page is at least one photo of an encampment. (This document was acquired through a freedom of information request asking for: “Any and all training manuals and/or communications regarding training for Park Ambassadors in the correspondence” of Troy Ford, the head Parks Ambassador.) Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. (2019). The Parks Ambassador Program. Obtained through MFOIPPA request #2020-01772, p. 1.
When Parks Ambassadors encounter an encampment, they coordinate with Streets to Homes to “resolve the situation.” If an encampment resident accepts an indoor placement offered by Streets to Homes, they are deemed compliant and Parks Ambassadors “coordinate encampment clearing, in a timely fashion.” If that person does not accept the offer, they are deemed not compliant and Parks Ambassadors are to organize the dismantling of the encampment, which can include giving written notice and requesting the assistance of the police. (See images #1 & #2 above.) Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. (2019). “The Parks Ambassador Program.” Obtained through MFOIPPA request #2020-01772, p. 12. The information on these images can also be found in the Parks and Recreation DivisionHomelessness and People Living in Poverty Policy. People staying in encampments are supposed to be given 72 hours notice under the law before an eviction, except under very limited circumstances. Both Troy Ford and Scott McKean, who are City of Toronto staff, testified that there are multiple instances that this has not occurred, including, according to McKean, “where the City is moving to clear the park after significant outreach” (p. 42). Cross-examination of Scott McKean. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Court file CV-20-644217.
The training slides are dated 2019. It is possible the data for 2019 encampments is incomplete. This graph, taken from the training slides, does not specifically say this is the number of encampments dismantled. However it is evident from the protocols illustrated in Image #1 & #2 that all Parks Ambassadors’ encounters with encampments result in their destruction. Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation. (2019). “The Parks Ambassador Program.” Obtained through MFOIPPA request #2020-01772, p. 12
People have been told by Parks Ambassadors that they can keep some things in the park for a period of time because shelter-hotels only allow people to bring 2 bags into the shelter-hotel with them, only to find out later that their belongings were disposed of. Encampment Support Network (March 19, 2021). Two bag limit – people’s worldly goods. Further, Parks Ambassadors have disposed of “bedding material to discourage overnight sleepers” MFOIPPA Request to City of Toronto 2019-00013, p. 36.
Parks Ambassador Troy Ford gave sworn testimony that he has cut open people’s tents in Cross-examination of Troy Ford. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Court file CV-20-644217. See a Twitter thread by outreach worker Lorraine Lam in which she recounts the experiences of Jesse Iker, now diseased, who reported that Ford slashed his tent open while he was in it. Lam, Lorraine (@lorrainelamchop). (November 21, 2020). Twitter thread. 10:25 am; also see Lavoie, J. (2020, December 8). Ten more lives lost remembered at monthly Toronto Homeless Memorial. Toronto.com.Troy Ford denied he did this in the same cross-examination.
The City’s “new practice” is to allow people to keep their property in parks. This is explained by Dan Breault, a Program Manager with the City, in Encampment Support Network (March 19, 2021).Two bag limit – people’s worldly goods. Prior to this, according to Breault, “just everything was absolutely discarded.” Prior to this policy being implemented,it was City policy to give unhoused people advance notice before disposing of their property. Parks and Recreation Division. (2002). Homelessness and People Living in Poverty Policy.
Dan Breault, City Program Manager, said that, given this is a “new practice… there will be mistakes and room for refinement and we’re continuing to try to make those refinements as we go. Understanding that… in this particular case and in other cases… somebody is suffering and… for that… we’re sorry” in Encampment Support Network (March 19, 2021). Two bag limit – people’s worldly goods.
As quoted in Encampment Solidarity Network (@ESN_TO). (March 2, 2021). Twitter post .
Encampment Solidarity Network (@ESN_TO). (March 2, 2021). Twitter post .
The “criminalization of homelessness” involves the creation and enforcement (by police and parapolice) of rules that specifically regulate homeless people in public spaces. The effect of criminalization of homelessness is that “people who occupy public spaces (because they lack private ones), and whose poverty is highly visible, are subject to extra attention by the criminal justice system not so much for what they do, but for who they are and where they are.” O’Grady, Bill, Stephen Gaetz, and Kristy Buccieri. Can I see your ID? The policing of youth homelessness in Toronto. Toronto: Justice for Children and Youth & Homeless Hub, 2011, p. 7. Laws which criminalize homelessness include those which make activities that are necessary for unhoused people’s basic survival illegal. These laws include prohibitions on sheltering oneself, lying down in public places, and sleeping in parks. The enforcement of such laws causes both physical and psychological harm and has been found to violate the right to life, liberty and security of the person enshrined in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Pivot Legal Society. (2016). Homeless Rights in Canada. Submission of the Pivot Legal Society to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for the Sixth Periodic Report of Canada for the CESCR’s 57th Session; also see Withers, A. J. (2020). Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing. York University.
Fact: A key component of the City’s Pathway Inside program is the criminalization of unhoused people. Criminalization,1 increases in policing, and the threat of incarceration endangers the health and safety of encampment residents rather than promoting health and safety.
On March 19th, 2021, three days after the City’s announcement of the Pathway Inside program, at least seven corporate security guards and by-law enforcement officers employed by the City of Toronto issued trespass notices in Trinity Bellwoods Park informing encampment residents that they will be in violation of the Trespass to Property Act if they do not clear the park by 8:30 am April 6th. The notices were posted on tents and poles.2 Similar notices were posted in other parks in the city.3 These notices were served “to guide peoples’ decision making” in relation to the Pathway Inside program.4 Enforcement of the Trespass to Property Act compels an increase in police presence, which further criminalizes homelessness, undermines the health and safety of encampment residents,5 and further increases encampment residents’ risk of of being subject to large fines, incarceration and deportation.6
FACT: Two weeks after the City announced the Pathway Inside program, promising “safe” and “comfortable” shelter-hotel spaces, the hotel being used for the program experienced a COVID-19 outbreak. As a result of the outbreak, the shelter-hotel stopped accepting new residents and the City notified the public (but not encampment residents) that “no enforcement action to vacate parks will occur on April 6.”7 People who had already moved from encampments to the shelter-hotel weren’t notified of the outbreak until 3 days later.8
Factcheck Toronto. (March 21, 2021). “Claim: Pathway Inside, a new City program…”. Previous evictions have used “Notices of Advice,” as prescribed under the municipal by-laws. The notice provided to encampment residents is a notice under the Trespass to Property Act, a provincial regulatory offense. E.g. Moss Park Notice of Advice in July 2020. Dodd, Zoe (July 15, 2020). Twitter post.
Unlike violations of the Parks by-laws, which are only ticketable offences, alleged violators of the Trespass to Property Act can be arrested, ticketed or provided with a summons to attend court by police. Issuing these notices can compel an increased police presence, which increases the risk of identity, record and even immigration checks; and can result in the laying of regulatory offences that can lead to incarceration in some circumstances. Trespass to Property Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. T.21. and Provincial Offences Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. P.33. Being homeless already increases the likelihood of being incarcerated and the length of imprisonment. John Howard Society of Toronto. (2010). Homeless and Jailed: Jailed and Homeless. Incarceration in Ontario, even for a short time, lowers length of life by 15 years for some age and gender groups. One study examined all adults admitted into provincial correctional facilities for 1 year. Consequently, it included individuals who were incarcerated for as short as a night. Provincial correctional facilities hold people in pre-trial custody and for sentences of not-longer than 2 years. Kouyoumdjian, F. G., Andreev, E. M., Borschmann, R., Kinner, S. A., & McConnon, A. (2017). Do people who experience incarceration age more quickly? Exploratory analyses using retrospective cohort data on mortality from Ontario, Canada. PLOS ONE, 12(4). Significant consequences for encampment residents for violating the Trespass to Property Act can lead to penalties such as: a fine of up to $10,000 for violating the Act (Trespass to Property Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. T.21 s. 2 (1); a fine of $2,000 and up to 30 days in jail or probation for failing to attend court if the encampment resident is provided a summons and they or their designate can’t/don’t attend the court date (Provincial Offences Act,R.S.O. 1990, c. P.33 s. 24 (1); s. 72 (1)); or a $1,000 fine, imprisonment for 30 days or both if the encampment resident is found to be violating their parole (Provincial Offences Act,R.S.O. 1990, c. P.33 s. 24 (1); s. 75).
Fact: Pathway Inside is designed to clear specific City parks of unhoused people.
The City is using the Trespass to Property Act to clear multiple encampments. The City posted notices in March, 2021 informing people that they must stop living in the park and remove all their belongings from the park by 8:00 am, April 6, 2021 (photo below).
The City claims that Pathway Inside will clear four priority parks; however, Allan Gardens has also been served with a trespass notice (photo below).
Fact: Pathway Inside involves the City turning people away who are seeking a bed in the shelter system, claiming that there is no space available, while hundreds of shelter hotel spaces sit empty.
For the Pathway Inside project, a shelter hotel has been securedand rooms in the hotel are being reserved for residents from four “priority” encampments.1 The residents in these encampments are currently sheltered in make-shift shelters, but the City is demanding that these shelters be dismantled and the residents move into the shelter-hotel by April 6, 2021, or they will face legal repercussions. In the meantime, these rooms sit empty. Meanwhile, on March 18, 2021, the City was telling people with no access to shelter or a warm space of any kind that there was no room for them in the shelter system:2 a front-line worker had to pay out of their own pocket for a space in a private hostel for a person seeking shelter3 while a hotel full of empty rooms, paid for by public money, sat empty. Additionally, outreach workers have been trying to refer people to these empty rooms and all have been rejected.4
FACT:There are at least 1,539 more people who are homeless in Toronto than there are spaces in the shelter system.
There were at least 7,829 people “actively experiencing homelessness” in Toronto at the end of January, 2021,1 while the shelter system only has space for 6,290 people.2 This means there are at least 1,539 people in Toronto who don’t have housing and can’t access an indoor space where they can take shelter overnight. As there are at least 800 people living outside in encampments, many of whom would not be counted among those “actively experiencing homelessness,” this number is likely a severe undercount.3
FACT:The “safety” of spaces in the shelter system, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is not a given.
At the best of times, people can experience many threats to their safety inside the shelter system, including physical violence/assault, risk of contracting diseases, theft, sexual assault, risk of overdosing, and trauma.4 Given that COVID-19 outbreaks are on the rise in the shelter system5 and recent research has found that homeless people in Ontario are not only at high risk of contracting the virus, but also over five times more likely to die after contracting COVID-19,6 there are no data to support the claim that the shelter system is a “safe” indoor option for people who are homeless.
According to City data, 7,829 people are “people who have used the shelter system at least one time in the past three months and did not move to permanent housing.” The City clarifies that this figure does not include people sleeping outdoors who have not accessed the shelter system in the past 3 months or people using overnight homelessness services that are not funded by the City of Toronto. The City estimates that based on the most recent Street Needs Assessment, approximately 18 per cent of people experiencing absolute homelessness in Toronto are not reflected in this data. Source: City of Toronto. (March 2, 2021). Shelter System Flow Data. (Screenshot of site accessed March 2, 2021)
This figure is based on data for February 28, 2021 and was calculated by adding current occupancy data with vacant room/bed data. To identify the capacity of vacant rooms, current occupancy averages were used: Vacant Family Shelter rooms were identified as having a capacity of 3 people per room, consistent with current average occupancy of Family Shelter rooms; vacant rooms in the COVID-19 Program were identified as having a capacity of 1 person per room, consistent with current average occupancy of COVID-19 Program rooms. Source: City of Toronto. (March 1, 2021). Daily Shelter Census. (Screenshots of site accessed on March 1, 2021: Page one, Page two.)
FACT:The City has initiated a legal proceeding against Khaleel Seivwright 1 – initiating a legal proceeding is the definition of “suing.” 2
In an attempt to stop Toronto Tiny Shelters from being distributed to people who are without shelter, the City of Toronto has filed in court to try to get an injunction to “permanently restrain” Khaleel Seivwright from “placing and/or relocating structures on City-owned land or otherwise creating a nuisance or interfering with the City’s rights as owner and occupier of its land.”1 The result of the City winning this lawsuit would be that people living outside will no longer have access to the relative warmth, privacy and security the shelters provided and will instead have to sleep in tents or other shelters that do not have insulation and cannot be locked.3
FACT: The 389 Church St. rental housing building is not new housing; it is an old TCHC building that has been recently renovated. The renovation represents a net loss of 130 rooms.
389 Church Street is a Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) building that could accommodate 274 people in 66 units of shared accommodation.1In 2015, the City passed a plan to renovate and “modernize” the building.2 The newly renovated building can house a total of 142 people in 11 bachelor, 87 1-bedroom, and 22 2-bedroom units,3 which is 130 fewer people than before the renovation. These 120 units of supportive housing will be counted towards the City’s target of creating 18,000 units of supportive housing, but the lost 130 affordable rooms will not be added to the City’s target of an additional 40,000 units of affordable housing, illustrating how the city continues to lose affordable housing faster than it is being created.4
FACT: “Gender diverse people” are not “women.”
The City’s press release announcing the opening of 389 Church St. simultaneously says all of the 120 units are for “women” and that residents in the building will be “women, [and] gender diverse people.” The press release’s headline collapses gender-diverse people into the category of “women,” denying the legitimacy of gender-diverse peoples’ identities and, potentially foreclosing their feelings of or actual safety and acceptance in the building.
FACT: 389 Church Street’s 142 rooms made up 23% of the 620 additional spaces the City said it would be providing this winter to shelter people who are homeless. However, many of these spaces won’t be available this winter and many of these spaces won’t be available to people who are homeless.
The City is essentially counting this housing twice. It counted the 142 rooms available in this renovated building as some of the 620 extra spaces that the City would open during the winter to accommodate people who are homeless and in need of shelter, effectively classifying the rooms as additional shelter system capacity and using them to meet winter shelter system capacity targets.5 And now the same rooms are being classified as supportive housing and are being used to meet the City’s supportive housing targets. Sixty-nine tenants who used to live in the old building have the legal right to return to units in the new building,6 which means that many of the 142 rooms were never going to be available to homeless people. Furthermore, the Winter Plan indicates that the units were to be made available to homeless people by the end of December,7 but in this latest press release, full occupancy of the building isn’t anticipated until the end of May,8 which means many of the rooms likely won’t be available to homeless people this winter at all. Previously, FactcheckToronto demonstrated that contrary to the City’s claims, the City is providing 15% fewer spaces this winter to shelter people who are homeless than it did last winter. It is now apparent that the City is providing even fewer spaces than we originally thought.
FACT: In previous years, the City of Toronto has offered multiple Warming Centres. In 2016/17 there were three,1 and in 2017/18 there were two.2 In addition to these Warming Centres, the the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre at 129 Peter Street was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.3
FACT: At a time when the number of indoor spaces people have access to has been drastically reduced due to COVID-19 restrictions, the City of Toronto is only opening three additional Warming Centres in 2020/21–the fourth “Warming Centre” at 129 Peter Street (the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre), represents a loss in service, as it is currently only available during Extreme Cold Weather Alerts, when prior to the pandemic it had been open as a full-service site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.4
FACT: Even with the inclusion of shelter space, hotel space and permanent housing, this winter the City is making 1,158 fewer shelter spaces available than last winter and 1,327 fewer spaces than they made available the winter before that.
The shelter system, prior to the addition of additional spaces through the Winter Service Plan, could accommodate approximately 6,132 people.1 Permanent housing has never been included in shelter system capacity data or in winter shelter plans before. By including 220 permanent housing units in the 620 spaces the City says it is adding to the shelter system this winter, 2 the City is inflating and being misleading about the extent of their winter response. However, even when these permanent housing units are included, the Winter Service Plan’s 620 additional spaces only brings total winter capacity up to 6,752 people,3 which is:
1,327 fewer spaces than December 10, 20185 (even before an additional 400 spaces were added later in the winter.6)
About the same number of spaces as were available January 24, 2018,7 after the City finally opened the Moss Park Armoury following more than a year of public pressure by activists demanding more space be made available to accommodate the many people who were unable to access adequate shelter.8
In the middle of a pandemic, with an eviction crisis upon us, and hundreds of people already forced to live outside as a result of a lack of safer options, the City of Toronto’s Winter Service Plan is a plan to offer 15% fewer spaces to people without access to housing than it did last winter.
FACT: This is not the first year the City has produced a wholly inadequate plan for winter service provision. The City of Toronto has a long history of inadequate plans to address the needs of people without housing during the winter, leaving people to weather the winter in inhumane conditions. It is often only after unrelenting public pressure that the City acknowledges the inadequacy of their plans by increasing the amount of space available and working to improve conditions.9
In 2017/18 the Winter Service Plan, which was developed following a review of the plan from the previous year included adding two additional winter respite sites, which would operate continuously from November 15 to April 15. This plan proved so inadequate that the City had to “add over 700 spaces, including 100 additional shelter beds, 200 new hotel/motel beds and over 400 additional winter respite and warming centre spaces. This included use of the Better Living Centre and Moss Park Armoury.”10
The 620 additional spaces are comprised of 100 spaces for individuals at the Better Living Centre 24hr respite site; 210 beds in an undisclosed number of family hotel and motel rooms; 90 hotel beds in an undisclosed number of hotel rooms; and 220 units of permanent supportive housing–100 units of modular housing; and 120 units of supportive housing in a renovated TCHC building that will accommodate 144 women (including 69 former tenants who have the legal right to return to the building). City of Toronto. (October 6, 2020) City of Toronto 2020-2021 winter plan for people experiencing homelessness In February 2021, the City released yet another misleading press release indicating that the 120 units of supportive housing that were to be opened by the end of December would now not be fully occupied until the end of May, 2021.
These shelter numbers are also misleading because they include “transitional shelter programs,” which are long-term programs that individuals must qualify for and be referred to. These are not emergency shelter spaces that someone in need of a place to stay can access by phoning Central Intake. Consequently, this inflates the appearance of shelter bed availability. For more on this and other issues with bed accessibility and the Daily Shelter Census, see Withers, A.J. (2020). Chapter 6: When is a bed not a bed: Epistemic injustice and shelter occupancy. Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing.
7,221 “shelter sector” + 689 “overnight services” = 7,910. City of Toronto. (December 12, 2019). Daily Shelter Census.
7,134 “shelter sector” + 945 “overnight services”= 8,079. City of Toronto. (December 10, 2018). Daily Shelter Census.
7,425 “shelter sector”+ 1,045 “overnight services” = 8,470 City of Toronto. (March 21, 2019). Daily Shelter Census.
5,985 “shelter sector” + 807 “overnight services” = 6,792 City of Toronto. (January 24, 2018). Daily Shelter Census
FACT: While the City makes conflicting statements about the number of shelter spaces in the City today, the fact is that the City’s shelter system can accommodate 1,594 fewer people today than it could prior to the pandemic.
On March 16th, the day before Toronto went into lockdown, shelter capacity was recorded as 7,139 people (2,802 people in family hotels/motels, 4,337 people in the singles sector) plus 654 people in 24-hour respites, women-only drop-ins, and Out of the Cold sites, for a total capacity of 7,793 people.1 The City has indicated on different days and in different ways that shelter capacity is either 6,000 spaces, 6,700 spaces, or 6,766 spaces.2However, the City’s Daily Shelter Census data indicated on November 9th, 2020,3 the maximum capacity of the shelter system is 6,145 people, including an additional 13 spaces at the Better Living Centre that have been added as part of the Winter Service Plan.4
There is no explicit indication of whether this shelter capacity figure was a measurement of people, or rooms and spaces/beds; however, family motels are recorded as having a capacity of 2,218, and an occupancy level of 86 percent when occupied by 1,910 people, indicating that “capacity” referred to individuals, not rooms. City of Toronto. (March 16, 2020). Daily Shelter Census.
A news release from Oct. 6, 2020 states that there are “6,700 spaces in Toronto’s shelter system that are currently available year-round.” Meanwhile, a backgrounder also released on Oct. 6, 2020 originally stated that “In total, this winter, the shelter system will provide more than 6,700 spaces through the City’s base shelter system and approximately 560 new spaces,” but was changed on Nov. 29th to read “In total, this winter, the shelter system will provide more than 6,000 spaces through the City’s base shelter system and approximately 620 new spaces.” A fact-sheet published on October 18, 2020 states, “Toronto’s shelter system provides more than 6,000 spaces” and then goes on to indicate that shelter capacity as of Sept. 15, 2020 is 6,766 spaces. A media release published December 15, 2020 states that the City’s base shelter system “provides more than 6,000 spaces.”
Assessing the number of spaces in the shelter system based on data reported through the Daily Shelter Census is challenging. The City has been changing how it reports shelter system data publicly online since the start of the pandemic, when it stopped updating its Daily Shelter Census. When it started reporting again in April, it said it was providing “a point-in-time snapshot on the number of clients in our shelter system. This snapshot will be updated once a week and represents occupancy on the day listed below, however it may not be inclusive of all programs and should not be compared to past occupancy statistics.” This “snapshot” method continued through October. By November 9th the City had switched to using a variety of metrics to report shelter system “space” depending on the type of facility. Rather than tracking potential shelter capacity (the number of people that the system could potentially shelter), the City began separately tracking and reporting “spaces,” “beds,” and “rooms,” where “rooms” could potentially accommodate more than one person, and in the case of family shelters, several people. The City claims (at the bottom of the webpage) that this data measures “capacity,” saying, “Capacity is measured in rooms for family programs and hotel and interim housing COVID-19 response programs. For all other programs, it is reported at the bed or space level. This figure represents all spaces, whether occupied or vacant, that are available in the system at 4 a.m.” However a room and a bed are not measures of capacity. For example, on November 9th, 2020, the City reports that there were 462 rooms in the family shelter system. This says nothing of the rooms’ capacity (the number of people those rooms can accommodate). However, the City reports that 431 of those rooms were occupied by a total of 1,321 people–an average of 3 people per room–which indicates that the capacity of the 462 rooms is roughly 1,386 people. At the same time, on November 9th, the City reports there were also 2,535 beds/spaces for individuals (2,282 in the singles sector + 263 in 24hr respites and women’s 24hr drop-ins), and 2,224 COVID-19 Program rooms/units (24hr temporary + hotels + interim housing + recovery–the number of occupants reported and the occupancy rate reported indicates that these rooms are intended for a single person only, even if a few of them are currently accommodating more than one person). Assuming an average of 3 people in each family shelter room (1,386 people) and one person in each room/unit-based COVID-19 Program space (2,224 people), the maximum capacity of the shelter system on November 9th, 2020 is 6,145 people. This number includes 13 Better Living Centre spaces, which are additional spaces under the Winter Service Plan.
November 9th was the date chosen for analysis because it was the date closest to the first date this claim was made (October 6th) where there was an archival record (on archive.org) where the City was reporting adequate data for analysis. (The reporting method used for Oct.8th, for example, did not provide adequate data for analysis.)
FACT: It remains unclear how many people the City has housed in permanent housing during the pandemic, and how many remain housed.
On December 3, 2020, 11 days after the claim above was made, the City made another statement in a news release with the headline, “City of Toronto continues to take extraordinary steps to help and protect people experiencing homelessness during COVID-19,” saying that it had “referred more than 2,500 people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing” so far this year.1 A ”referral” is when a service provider “refers” a person to another service provider who may be able to help a person access permanent housing. It does not mean a person was housed.2 With 2,500 referrals over an 11 month period, the City was referring an average of 227 people each month to housing in 2020. For both of these statements to be true, in the eleven days between these two statements, not only would the City have had to increase its average rate of housing by more than 3.5 times, but it would have had to make up the gap between the referrals and the people who were actually housed and housing this additional number of people. This seems implausible. What is more likely, is that the 2,800 claim is incorrect and instead 2,800 individuals were referred to permanent housing.
What makes this claim difficult to interpret and verify, is the lack of data provided to substantiate it. When the City’s Housing Secretariat claimed that 2,800 people had been housed, the only concrete data it provided was, “325 units were occupied and 450 individuals housed, an additional 450 units are proposed to be filled over the next 3 months.” This data clarifies that 450 people were indeed housed, but leaves the housing status of the remaining 2,350 people unknown.3
We don’t know how many people actually successfully secured permanent housing and how many of them have remained housed, or how this compares with last year.
The City is housing people through a combination of housing allowances and rent-geared-to-income units.4 Typically, housing allowances are time-limited, lasting for 5 years, which undermines the supposed permanency of the housing.5Also, housing allowances, by definition, “may not completely cover the gap between an affordable rent… and the market rent,” which increases the likelihood of a person becoming homeless again.6 Further, the numbers of people referred and housed includes housing placements that were planned and budgeted for prior to the pandemic, not only emergency COVID-19 placements, and so it is misleading to refer to these placements as “extraordinary steps” taken by the City.7, 8
For information about how referrals work within the shelter system see: Carbone, G. (February 20, 2018). CD26.5 Update on Shelter Services. Community Development and Recreation Committee, Toronto City Council, p.57. Referrals work similarly for housing.
FACT: Between March 13 and July 30, 2020, there were 55 encampment fires.1
The City misrepresents and overstates the number of “fires” in encampments by citing data for the number of calls Toronto Fire responded to regarding fires in encampments rather than citing the number of uncontrolled fires Toronto Fire found upon arrival, which makes encampments appear to be far more dangerous than they are. When counting calls rather than uncontrolled fires, the number of encampment fires in 2019 appears ten times greater than the actual number of uncontrolled fires.2
FACT: While at least seven homeless people died in November 2020, none of them died from fire.3
The risk of death by fire for a homeless person is so low that the City of Toronto does not list it as a discrete category for cause of death in its data tracking homeless deaths.The City did, however, add COVID-19 as a distinct category in 2020, accounting for 7% of deaths from January 1 to June 30 2020.4
Mathematically extrapolating from the City’s data in the above claim, Toronto Fire responded to 99 calls about encampment fires in 2019. City of Toronto court filings reports there were only 10 actual encampment fires in 2019.
According to City of Toronto data, nearly ⅓ of all deaths are from drug toxicity (31%) and 26% of deaths are listed as unknown/pending. Many unknown/pending deaths will likely end up listed as drug toxicity, but it is unlikely an unknown/pending cause would be listed as fire, as fire as cause of death would be more obvious.
FACT: The City of Toronto retroactively changes data in items posted on its “News Releases and Media Advisories” page without providing any indication that it has done so.
This October 6, 2020 Backgrounder was originally published on October 6th,1 but was then modified on November 29th and critical data was changed without any indication that the document had been updated.2 A news release from the same day was not updated and now contradicts the updated backgrounder.3
When we asked the City for information about its protocols for managing News Releases and Media Advisories posts, we were informed that they update the City website regularly, “including on the City’s Media Room page, to ensure it is accurate and up-to-date” and that they “may issue a new or revised news release or post the update on our social media channels.” This is only done, they said, if “significant new information or inaccurate information that was previously issued in a news release needs to be re-communicated or corrected with the public.” 4
Quote – News releases are public statements that the government provides about its activities. They become important public records for people, including researchers, media and the general public, which document what the City is doing and has done. If the City retroactively makes changes to these documents – especially without any indication that it has done so–it is changing the public record and effectively rewriting history.
The City states that, “in the future… [it] will explore including information on the City’s Media Room page to indicate when content has been updated.” 5
FACT: It is impractical, illogical and a significant barrier to require a population that often does not have access to (charged) phones to access shelter by phone. It is even more impractical, illogical, and a significant barrier to require a population that often doesn’t have access to (charged) phones to call back repeatedly and/or provide a phone number where they can be reached.
FACT: Because of technological and financial barriers that requiring a charged phone presents for people seeking shelter through Central Intake, many people rely on front-line workers to assist them in calling Central Intake in search of shelter.1
Front-line workers are only available during set hours and may not have somewhere for someone to wait while the worker makes repeated calls to Central Intake, particularly during COVID-19. During the evenings and on the weekends, it can be particularly difficult for people to access services that will help with both making calls and receiving a call if a bed becomes available. A call-back may seem simple but can require someone spending hours of their day in a health centre or agency (at least when there is space available and when there isn’t a pandemic restricting access to these spaces).
FACT: The claim, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that the safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness is inside is dubious.
More than 660 cases of COVID-19 have been reported inside the shelter system during the pandemic,1 while less than five cases have been identified in encampments through widespread testing.2
Research has demonstrated that COVID-19 risk is highest in indoor congregate settings where droplet and airborne transmission becomes a significant threat; the level of risk is increased with the more time a person spends in such a setting, the more people it contains, and the lower the quality of its ventilation.3
Places that used to be considered safe for people like restaurants, churches, hospitals, and long-term care homes, are now sites with the highest risk of COVID-19 transmission.4Yet, the City hasn’t updated its view of risks associated with the shelter system. As many as 2,874 spaces in the shelter system are currently congregate settings, many with shared bathrooms and eating areas.5
FACT: The City of Toronto has withheld basic services from people living in encampments; these services would increase people’s safety.
Scott McKean, Manager of Community Safety and Wellbeing Planning, Social Development Finance and Administration with the City of Toronto, gave sworn testimony that:
City staff have identified opportunities to have dedicated staffing and infrastructure within encampment sites, including suggestions by community partners. At this time, the City has prioritized creating access to safer spaces inside… rather than building infrastructure into encampments. Building infrastructure in encampments would require spending scarce resources in parks and risk encouraging larger encampments.6
FACT: It was only in October 2020, seven months into the pandemic, that the City of Toronto lifted a prohibition on the distribution of survival supplies for all agencies receiving City funding. It took over two years from the issuance of the Coroner’s Jury Recommendations in the Inquest into the death of Grant Faulkner for this ban to be lifted.7 This prohibition was instituted when Streets to Homes was put in place in 2005.8
FACT: The City provides no data or analysis of the dangers associated with various housing or shelter options, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and overdose crisis.
People face many threats to their safety including contracting COVID-19, exposure to the elements including freezing to death), physical violence/assault, contracting other diseases, theft, sexual assault, overdosing, fire, and trauma.9 The level of risk related to each of these threats can increase or decrease depending on the specific shelter/housing situation. Often people become homeless because their housing situation has become unsafe.10 In some cases, it is the City itself that is responsible for the threat and has the capacity to lessen it.11 The Premier of Ontario recognizes that some people report not wanting to stay in shelters because “some people get beat-up, their stuff gets stolen.”12 The City needs to update its outdated understanding of safety in accordance with current data about the actual safety risks that people experiencing homelessness are facing and apply it to reducing those risks and making shelter and housing options safer.