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.9 Poor 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
City Claim: Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. (2020, November 20). Central Intake Shelter Access Data Indicators and Trends – Update.
- 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. The Star 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 The Star 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: FactCheck Toronto: Claim: There are safe, indoor options…
- Rather than provide evidence of of safety, the City consistently lists actions it has taken or is planning to take to improve shelter safety. A list of actions and intentions, however, is not a measure of the safety of shelter spaces. The City provides data about encampment fires to claim that encampments are unsafe, but does not provide data about violence, overdosing, COVID-19 transmission, or other safety risks when making claims that shelters are safe. The City of Toronto has claimed it offers “safe indoor space,” “safe inside space” or the “shelter system is safe” on multiple occasions. See: City of Toronto. (2021, June 3). City Manager’s report outlines City of Toronto’s ongoing efforts…; Murray, Chris (City Manager, City of Toronto). (2021). COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System; City of Toronto. (2021, May 20). City of Toronto continues to support people experiencing homelessness…; City of Toronto. (2020, February 16). Extreme Cold Weather Alert – seek shelter, check on loved ones; City of Toronto. (2020). City of Toronto’s emergency shelter system and winter services plan for people experiencing homelessness; City of Toronto. (2020). Factum of the Respondent City of Toronto. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398.
- See note 5.
- 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.
- See note 5 for methodology.