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: 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