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.