Claim: In 2020, Toronto Fire Services responded to 253 fires in encampments.

FACT: There were 132 encampment fires in 2020, almost half as many as the City claims, and the 132 figure includes fires where there was no property damage and there were no injuries.1 It is also likely that the 132 figure includes fire incidents that were unrelated to encampments, and is further inflated.2

The reason for this discrepancy in the number of encampment fires is that the City of Toronto has been calling “fire response events” not “fires.” Fire response events include all emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire. Even if it turns out that a suspected uncontrolled fire in an encampment is simply a false alarm, a controlled campfire, BBQ smoke, steam from a pot on a cooking stove, or even someone setting off fireworks, these “fire response events” are counted as “fires” in the City’s accounting of encampment fires, significantly inflating the number of actual fires.3 If the City were to cite “fire incidents” instead, which are defined as emergency responses to notifications of a suspected uncontrolled fire that required fire suppression, the number of encampment fires would be significantly smaller.4 For 2020, citing the number of “fire response events” in encampments instead of “fire incidents” results an almost doubling of the number of encampment fires (253 instead of 132).

FACT: City of Toronto data about encampment fires do not take into account the significant increase in the number and size of encampments across the city since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the increase in park use overall.

Given that the number and size of encampments across the city has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic,5 and that the level of recreational park use has increased dramatically as well,6 it only makes sense that the number of notifications of suspected uncontrolled fires would also increase. Not only are there more people living in encampments who engage in activities that can involve fire (cooking, Indigenous sacred fires), but there are more recreational park users in parks who engage in activities that can involve fire and to observe the activities of those living in encampments and to notify the fire department of suspected uncontrolled fires. This context is critical when looking at encampment fire data to assess the relative safety of encampments.

Notes:

City Claim: City of Toronto. (June 3, 2021). “City Manager’s report outlines City of Toronto’s ongoing efforts to protect people experiencing homelessness and ensure the safety of the City’s shelter system”; Toronto City Manager. (June 1, 2021). “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System”; City of Toronto. (May 28, 2021). “City of Toronto continues to protect and assist people experiencing homelessness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic”; City of Toronto. (May 20, 2021). “City of Toronto continues to support people experiencing homelessness through immunization, enhanced infection prevention, and safe inside space”; City of Toronto. (February 25, 2021). “Frequently Asked Questions – Wooden structures in encampments”; City of Toronto. (February 19, 2021). “City of Toronto serves notice on illegal structures in parks”; multiple claims to media.

  1. Source: Document obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427. The document lists the number of “fire events” that the fire department responded to between January 2015 and February, 2021 which required fire suppression and which were classified as “fire,” “explosion” and “no loss outdoor fire” as per Ontario’s “Standard Incident Report Codes List.” A “no loss outdoor fire” is a fire that does not result in property damage or injury; no loss outdoor fires do not include “arson, vandalism, children playing, recycling or dump fires.” “No loss outdoor fires” and “fires” are not distinguished in the available data. Additional FOI requests are required to ascertain the actual number of out-of-control (outdoor) fires and explosions. Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List.”
  2. While some “fire incidents” may be obviously “encampment fires” (such as when a tent or shelter is on fire) other “fire incidents” (such as a campfire) may simply be those that occur in parks that happen to have encampments in them. It is unclear how the distinction between a fire incident in a park and a fire incident in an encampment in a park is made. City staff have equated any activity that takes place in a park with activity that takes place in an encampment when these are not the same. See, for example, the testimony of Troy Ford, the City’s witness who spoke to fire safety, in which he interchanges parks with encampments, confuses the general area around encampments with encampments/encamped people, and blames encampment residents for events that occur in the park that there is no evidence an encampment resident was involved in. Ford, Troy. Affidavit in City of Toronto Motion Record, Black et al. v. City of Toronto, 2020 ONSC 6398. It seems likely then, that some fire incidents that occur in parks that are unrelated to encampments may be classified as “encampment fires” if there are encampments nearby.
  3. A freedom of information request made to the City of Toronto asked, “How many fires were there in homeless encampments, as expressed by month and year, between 2015 and the present date?” The City of Toronto responded to this request for information by providing the table, “Fire events that occurred in homeless encampment.” This table indicates that there were 253 “fire events” in homeless encampments in 2020. As the table lists the number of “fire events,” not actual fires, a follow-up was made to the City that reiterated that the request was for information about “fires” not “fire events.” This time, the City responded with a different table that listed only “fire incidents” from 2015-February, 2021. This table indicates that there were 132 “fire incidents” in homeless encampments in 2020. In an email accompanying the “fire incidents” table, the City clarified that the City understands “fire” to mean a “fire response event,” which it defines as “an emergency response to notification (alarm or call from the public) of a suspected uncontrolled fire. These events are recorded with the OFM codes associated with Fire, Pre-Fire Conditions, Controlled Burning or False Alarm.” The OFM code for “Pre-Fire Conditions” pertains to situations where no fire is present, such as an engine overheating, lightning, fireworks, a pot on a stove, and steam from cooking (see: Office of the Fire Marshall (2009). “Standard Incident Report Codes List”.) Documents obtained from the City of Toronto through MPPFOI Act request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
  4. FOI request # 2021-00427, including email correspondence.
  5. Toronto City Manager. (June 1, 2021). “COVID-19 Response Update: Protecting People Experiencing Homelessness and Ensuring the Safety of the Shelter System.”
  6. Lightle, M. (April 18, 2021) How Ontario’s parks became pandemic lifesavers. Toronto Observer.

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