Claim: People experiencing homelessness in Toronto have access to safe, high quality emergency shelter.

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

Red line indicates the increasing trend in violent incidents over time.

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

Red line indicates the increasing trend over time.

Notes:

City Claim: Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. (2020, November 20). Central Intake Shelter Access Data Indicators and Trends – Update.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. FOI request to the City of Toronto # 2021-00378.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. See: FactCheck Toronto: Claim: There are safe, indoor options…
  7. 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.
  8. See note 5.
  9. See Figure 2. FOI request to the City of Toronto # 2021-00378.
  10. 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.
  11. See note 5 for methodology.

Claim: The City of Toronto continually provides safe, inside space to people living outside.

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

The above graph shows the number of people who, at 4am each night, were still unable to access a space in the shelter system. At 4am, people still seeking shelter are cleared from the system for a new day to begin.
The above graph shows the number of calls made by individuals and couples trying to access shelter who were told when they called looking for a space that there were no spaces available in the shelter system for them.

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

Notes:

City source: City of Toronto. (March 16, 2021). City of Toronto supporting people living in encampments with safe, supportive indoor space.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Hatlem, Doug. (May 18, 2021). Toronto Drop-in Network Press Conference; Dodd, Z. Affidavit. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398.
  5. FOI 2020-01799.
  6. Factcheck Toronto. (Dec. 2, 2020). “Claim: Central Intake is an important part…” Grant, M. (2020, December 7). Melody Grant, South Riverdale Community Health Centre; Howat, K. (2020, December 7). ​Toronto’s Economic and Community Development Committee meeting. EC18.6 Economic and Community Development Committee; Koyama, D. (2020, December 3). Communication from Danielle Koyama, Japanese Canadians for Social Justice. EC18.6 Economic and Community Development Committee

Claim: Pathway Inside, a new City program, is focused on those living in encampments at four priority sites, namely Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods and Lamport Stadium, that are subject to increased health and safety concerns. The City has secured safe space inside hotel programs for everyone at these four sites.

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 secured and 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

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto. (March 16, 2020). City of Toronto supporting people living in encampments with safe, supportive indoor space.

  1. City of Toronto. (March 16, 2020). City of Toronto supporting people living in encampments with safe, supportive indoor space.
  2. Evans, Jennifer. (March 18, 2021). https://twitter.com/nejsnave/status/1372723483772260356; https://twitter.com/nejsnave/status/1372718337692639232. At the same time there were 11 active COVID-19 outbreaks in shelters, with 204 cases. City of Toronto. (March 19, 2021). Active COVID-19 Outbreaks in Toronto Shelters.
  3. After paying for the room for two nights, the worker fundraised for a third night for this individual and for a night for two other people who were also unable to access shelter through the City. Evans, Jennifer (March 19, 2021). https://twitter.com/nejsnave/status/1372946919392165891; https://twitter.com/nejsnave/status/1373362591007830019
  4. Lorraine Lam. (March 20, 2021). Twitter post. https://twitter.com/lorrainelamchop/status/1373802832323870722

Images: Trespass notice photos: Greg Cook

Claim: There are safe, indoor options for people and we have staff offering these options to people on our streets every night.

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.

Notes:

City Claim: Office of the Mayor’s response to a request to drop the injunction against Khaleel Seivwright, March 2, 2021.

  1. 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)
  2. 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.)
  3. The City defines those “actively experiencing homelessness” as “people who have used the shelter system at least one time in the past three months and did not move to permanent housing,” which will exclude many in encampments. City of Toronto. (March 2, 2021). Shelter System Flow Data; Factcheck Toronto (December 22, 2020). Claim: As of December 2, the City has identified 395 tents in 66 sites in parks across Toronto.
  4. See: Factcheck Toronto (December 22, 2020a). Claim: The safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto is inside, in a shelter, hotel or, ultimately, housing, and that is why the City is focused on investing significant public funding on these services.
  5. Leung, Wency. (February 25, 2021). Advocates warn of potential crisis as Toronto’s shelter system faces rising COVID-19 cases. The Globe and Mail.
  6. Richard, L., Booth, R., Rayner, J., Clemens, K., Forchuk, C. and Shariff, S., (2021). Testing, infection and complication rates of COVID-19 among people with a recent history of homelessness in Ontario, Canada: a retrospective cohort study. CMAJ Open, 9(1), p. E1-E9.

Claim: This is the first year that the City has offered more than one Warming Centre, which will increase access to these services across Toronto.* For the first time, as well, there are four warming centres, an increase from one, across the city when an extreme cold weather alert is called.**

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

Notes:

*City Claim: City of Toronto News Release, December 15, 2020
**City Claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020

  1. Bondy, Madeleine. (February 6, 2017). The City of Toronto is Failing many of its Most Marginalized Homeless Citizens. Imagine.
  2. City of Toronto. (January 4, 2018). City of Toronto opens two 24/7 warming centres.
  3. Raftis, P. (2019). CD29.08 2019 Shelter Infrastructure Plan and System Update Report. p.8
  4. Ibid.

Claim: Over the last several weeks, the City’s winter services plan has also begun operations. Adding 620 additional spaces over the winter, this year’s plan offers more space than any other previous year and includes shelter space, hotel space and permanent housing.

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: 

  • 1,158 fewer spaces than December 12th, 2019, when shelter capacity was 7,910 people; 4
  • 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.

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

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020

  1. See: https://factchecktoronto.ca/2020/12/22/claim-there-are-more-than-6000-shelter-spaces-in-the-city-today/
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 7,221 “shelter sector” + 689 “overnight services” = 7,910. City of Toronto. (December 12, 2019). Daily Shelter Census.
  5. 7,134 “shelter sector” + 945 “overnight services”= 8,079. City of Toronto. (December 10, 2018). Daily Shelter Census.
  6. 7,425 “shelter sector”+ 1,045 “overnight services” = 8,470 City of Toronto. (March 21, 2019). Daily Shelter Census.
  7. 5,985 “shelter sector” + 807 “overnight services” = 6,792 City of Toronto. (January 24, 2018). Daily Shelter Census
  8. Mathieu, Emily. (January 31, 2017). Activists urge city council to create more shelter space. Toronto Star; Crowe, Cathy. (January 21, 2018). Toronto’s shelter catastrophe was decades in the making . Rabble.ca; Toronto Newsroom. (January 6, 2018). Moss Park Armoury will open its doors to Toronto’s homeless. Toronto.Com.
  9. Ibid; Doherty, Brennan. (January 4, 2008). How Toronto started turning to armouries to relieve its shelter crunch. Toronto Star.
  10. Raftis, Paul. (February 20, 2018). CD26.5 Update on Emergency Shelter Services. Community Development and Recreation Committee of Toronto City Council. p.9

Claim: There are more than 6,000 shelter spaces in the city today.

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.2 However, 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 

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020

  1. 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.
  2. 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.” 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)

Claim: Since March 2020, the City has permanently housed more than 2,800 individuals experiencing chronic homelessness through rent geared to income units and with housing allowances. This represents an increase of 50% increase (sic) in housing outcomes compared to the same time period last year.

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.5 Also, 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

Notes:

City Claim: Bond, A. (December 14, 2020). Attachment 1 – Update on the Ongoing COVID-19 Emergency Shelter Response.

  1. City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020.
  2. 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. 
  3. Bond, A. (December 14, 2020). Attachment 1 – Update on the Ongoing COVID-19 Emergency Shelter Response. Toronto City Council; City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See City of Toronto. (n.d.). “Housing allowance subsidies.” Subsidized Housing & Housing Benefits; Toronto Drop-in Network. (2020). Pandemic Housing Initiatives
  6. Toronto. (2019). Housing + Homelessness Service Glossary 2019, p. 9.
  7. City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020; Gibson, V. (August 13, 2020). Toronto says it’s moved more than 1,500 people from shelters into permanent housing since COVID-19 hit. But that figure doesn’t tell the whole story . The Star.
  8. For more on this issue, see Toronto Drop-in Network’s Post: Pandemic Housing Initiatives.

Claim: To date this year, Toronto Fire Services has responded to 216 fires in encampments. That is a 218% increase over the same period in 2019. Sadly, one person has died as a result of an encampment fire this year. Seven people have lost their lives as a result of encampment fires in Toronto since 2010.

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

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020

  1. Ford, T. Affidavit; Michale Sims, lawyer for City in City of Toronto Motion Record, Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398; Casey, L. (2020, October 1). People experiencing homelessness safer in tents than shelters during pandemic, Toronto court hears. CBC News
  2. 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. 
  3. Toronto Homeless Memorial Network; City of Toronto Press Release says there is one death from fire in 2020. That tragic death occurred on May 1st Wilson, C. (2020, May 1). One person has died after a fire at a homeless encampment in Toronto. CTV News
  4. 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.

Claim: Central Intake is an important part of helping people find shelter on any given day. When someone calls requesting shelter, the City looks for all available space that fits a person’s needs. If there are no beds available at the time they call or the referral does not match the persons specific needs, the person will be asked to call back, or may be offered a call back, as a bed may become available later that day or night.

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).

Notes:

City claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020.

  1. Grant, M. (2020, December 7). Melody Grant, South Riverdale Community Health Centre; Howat, K. (2020, December 7). ​Toronto’s Economic and Community Development Committee meeting. EC18.6 Economic and Community Development Committee; Koyama, D. (2020, December 3). Communication from Danielle Koyama, Japanese Canadians for Social Justice. EC18.6 Economic and Community Development Committee

Claim: The safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto is inside, in a shelter, hotel or, ultimately, housing, and that is why the City is focused on investing significant public funding on these services.

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.4 Yet, 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.

Notes:

City claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020.

  1. City of Toronto. (2020). Active COVID-19 Outbreaks in Toronto Shelters, December 2, 2020.
  2. Harper, L. (November 23, 2020). National Housing Day Press Conference, Shelter & Housing Justice Network, Toronto; Lena, S. (September 30, 2020). Over the last six months, I’ve tested more than 1,000 people for Covid in hospitals, shelters and homeless encampments. Toronto Life.
  3. Ahlawat, A., Wiedensohler, A., & Mishra, S. K. (2020). An Overview on the Role of Relative Humidity in Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Indoor Environments. Aerosol and Air Quality Research, 20(9), 1856–1861; Boisvert, N. ( December 2, 2020). Shared dorms in Toronto shelters put users at risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission, critics warn. CBC News; CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (October 28, 2020). How Coronavirus Spreads. Editorial: COVID-19 transmission—up in the air. (2020). The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 8(12), 1159. Hamner, L., Dubbel, P., Capron, I., Ross, A., Jordan, A., Lee, J., Lynn, J., Ball, A., Narwal, S., Russell, S., Patrick, D., & Leibrand, H. (2020). High SARS-CoV-2 Attack Rate Following Exposure at a Choir Practice — Skagit County, Washington, March 2020. MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(19), 606–610; Kohanski, M. A., Lo, L. J., & Waring, M. S. (2020). Review of indoor aerosol generation, transport, and control in the context of COVID‐19. International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology, 10(10), 1173–1179; Noorimotlagh, Z., Jaafarzadeh, N., Martínez, S. S., & Mirzaee, S. A. (2021). A systematic review of possible airborne transmission of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) in the indoor air environment. Environmental Research, 193(2021), 1–6; Morawska, L., & Milton, D. K. (2020). It Is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Clinical Infectious Diseases, 71(9); Liu, M., Maxwell, C. J., Armstrong, P., Schwandt, M., Moser, A., McGregor, M. J., Bronskill, S. E., & Dhalla, I. A. (2020). COVID-19 in long-term care homes in Ontario and British Columbia. CMAJ , 192(47), E1540–E1546; Carman, T. (2020, December 11). Coronavirus can travel farther and faster inside restaurants than previously thought, South Korean study suggests. The Philadelphia Inquirer; Dubinski, K. (2020, November 24). “Alarming” COVID-19 outbreaks spreading throughout University Hospital. CBC News. 
  4. Ibid.
  5. Boisvert, N. (December 2, 2020). Shared dorms in Toronto shelters put users at risk of airborne COVID-19 transmission, critics warn. CBC News.
  6. McKean, Scott. (2020) Affidavit. Motion Record – City of Toronto. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Para 18.
  7. Office of the Chief Coroner. (2018). OCC Inquest Faulkner 2018: Verdict of Coroner’s Jury.
  8. McQuaig, L. (2007, June 1). We allowed rich to win class war. Toronto Star; Withers, A. J. (2020). Mapping ruling relations through homelessness organizing. York University.
  9. See, for e.g.: Cowan, L., Hwang, S. W., Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health report; Deck, S. M., & Platt, P. A. (2015). Homelessness is traumatic: Abuse, victimization, and trauma histories of homeless men. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24(9), 1022–1043; Toronto Public Health. (2020). Deaths of People Experiencing Homelessness: January 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020.
  10. City of Toronto. (2018). Street needs assessment – 2018. Cowan, L., Hwang, S. W., Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health report, p. 10.
  11. In addition to withholding services from encampments (n. 6-8 above), this threat comes in multiple forms, including through police violence, which 35% of homeless people reported experiencing. Cowan, L., Hwang, S. W., Khandor, E., & Mason, K. (2007). The Street Health report 2007, p 55; O’Grady, B., Gaetz, S., & Buccieri, K. (2011). Can I see your ID? The policing of youth homelessness in Toronto. Justice for Children and Youth & Homeless Hub, p. 47-48.The City of Toronto, through its Toronto Community Housing Corporation, is also a large landlord which actively creates homelessness through evictions, see: Leon, S., & Iveniuk, J. (2020). Forced out: Evictions, race, and poverty in Toronto.
  12. Ford, D. (June 24, 2020). COVID-19 Press Conference.

For more on the Faulkner recommendations, the Encampment Support Network has made a short graphic guide.

Claim: The City has helped more than 1,100 people move inside from encampments since the pandemic began.

FACT: Only 956 of the 1,100 people from encampments that the City says it helped move inside (to a space in the shelter system) since the pandemic began did actually move inside.1 

FACT: Of the 1,100 people the City claims to have moved inside, less than half of them–only 509–are currently inside. 447 of the 956 people (or 47%) of the people the City actually did move inside from encampments are no longer in the shelter system.2

74% of the people who were moved inside from encampments have left to an “unknown discharge location.” That is to say, a third of the people the City moved into the shelter system from encampments are no longer in the shelter system and the City doesn’t know where they ended up.3

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020.

  1. Shelter Support and Housing Administration. (December 7, 2020). Update on COVID-19 response for Homelessness Services.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid. Many of these people are back in encampments and the City may have a record of them there.

Image: Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. (December 7, 2020) Update on COVID-19 response for Homelessness Service. p. 12.

Claim: City programs in shelters, hotels, and transitional and supportive housing, also include medical supports, like mental health and addiction counselling, meals, clean linen and access to showers, to ensure people don’t return to living outside.

FACT: While the City claims that it provides medical supports (like mental health and addiction counseling) at City-funded facilities, supports aren’t interchangeable.

A health provider at a remote City-funded site is not an adequate replacement for a health provider with whom a person has a long-standing relationship; familiarity with the person’s case history and a trusting relationship, developed over time, makes a long-standing health provider uniquely important to a person’s health. For this reason, many encampment residents do not want to or are unable to move far away from the supports and services they rely on, which can include safe consumption sites, pharmacists, methadone clinics, friends, networks, and other places and services in the neighbourhood that are a part of their daily routine. Some people have been moved over an hour away by transit  from their communities.1

FACT: City-funded facilities subject residents to a large number of rules that can be difficult for people to follow, criminalizes behaviour, and can lead to involuntary discharge.2 A third of all people moved into the shelter system (30%) from encampments have left to an “unknown discharge location,”3 demonstrating that the conditions and services City-run sites provide are inadequate for many. 

FACT: Overdose prevention and harm reduction services in shelter-hotels have been inadequate.4 In 2020, 29 people died from overdose in the shelter system between January and November (compared to 13 people in all of 2019).5

FACT: Not all residents in shelter-hotels require the high levels of support that is often mandatory in shelter-hotels.6

For example, some front-line workers and former shelter-hotel residents have described the many (sometimes 5 or more) mandatory daily “wellness checks” that some residents have experienced as invasive and a serious violation of privacy.7  Inner City Health Associates recommends doing two “wellness checks” a day by phone.8 Reducing some kinds of supports for people who do not need or want them would help the City better provide support to the people who do need them. 

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto Press Release, December 3, 2020

  1. Dodd, Z. Affidavit. Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. Para 15. According to the the Encampment Support Network, Lamport Stadium residents, for example, were moved to shelter-hotels at Kennedy Rd. and the 401, 30 km and about 1 hour and 20 minutes away by transit.  Encampment Support Network. (July 27, 2020). Relocation and Return. ESN Donor Newsletter. Also see Dodd, Z., (November 8, 2020). Encampment Support Network Press Conference.
  2. Chili. (November 8, 2020). Encampment Support Network Press Conference; Lam, L. (November 8, 2020). Encampment Support Network Press Conference; Pabani, A., & Rotsztain, D. (2020). Dismantling Stubborn Structures
  3. Shelter Support and Housing Administration. (December 7, 2016). Update on COVID-19 response for Homelessness Services
  4. See Altenberg, J., & Robertson, A. (November 27, 2020). Get opioid overdose prevention and harm reduction into Toronto shelters — now. The Star; Dodd, Z., (November 8, 2020). Encampment Support Network Press Conference; Rondinelli, N. (2020, October 21). Deaths in Toronto Shelters at All Time High: CEO of Heart to Heart CPR Says That Shelter Staff is Taking the Wrong Course – A Claim Recently Supported by Newest Canadian 2020 Resuscitation Guidelines Released October 19, 2020. Global Newswire. 
  5. City of Toronto. (2020, December 15). Integrated Prevention and Harm Reduction (iPHARE) initiative, also see Boisvert, N. (2020, November 22). Preventing fatal opioid overdoses a looming challenge as Toronto shelters prepare for winter.
  6. Not all “supports” are mandatory, many are voluntary. However, “wellness checks” are mandatory
  7. Carbone, G. (2018, February 20). CD26.5 Update on Shelter Services. Community Development and Recreation Committee, Toronto City Council, p.44
  8. Svoboda, T., Baral, S., Perlas, P., Bond, A., Orkin, A., Jardine, L., & Tanner, G. (2020). Isolation Site for People Experiencing Homelessness: High Level Policies and Procedures Overview.