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: 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: 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.