My Statement on Recent Developments Regarding Encampments
As a downtown resident and the Councillor for Spadina-Fort York, I was deeply troubled by the confrontation that took place at Lamport Stadium. As a city and a community we must work together to create the conditions, the trust, and the relationships to support people experiencing homelessness to access safe indoor housing. A pathway out of homelessness and into safe and supportive housing – that must be our common objective. The recent events at Lamport Stadium were a step backwards. I have spoken with my City Council colleagues and senior staff to express my views on this.
I want to directly address the homelessness crisis facing our city. To my core, I believe that inequality is the defining issue facing our city today. We have a fundamental duty to solve it.
It is the responsibility of governments to take care of everyone in our city, and above all, our most vulnerable and marginalized residents. All levels of government (including our own City) need to do more to fund and create affordable and supportive housing, faster. Housing is a human right and we must be working towards a more sustainable and equitable model for housing those in need.
I believe that the safest option for people experiencing homelessness is safe and secure indoor housing, where they can physically distance, have access to their own space, and which must include wrap-around health, harm reduction, and permanent housing supports. Housing and health go hand-in-hand, and entering a shelter or shelter hotel with on-site supports can be a critical first step in the pathway out of homelessness.
I have been a vocal advocate for investing in new affordable housing and supportive housing, and this work has only become more vital during the past year due to the pandemic. I have worked consistently to support the City's emergency COVID shelter response, including increasing physical distancing in shelters, opening up hotel rooms for shelter programs, and integrating harm reduction supports.
Earlier this year, the City of Toronto entered into agreement with the Novotel (at 45 The Esplanade in downtown Toronto) to lease the hotel until the end of 2021. This agreement means the hotel’s 205 rooms are being used for people experiencing homelessness, with adequate space for privacy and safe physical distancing. The program is operated by Homes First, an organization with more than 35 years of experience caring for the most vulnerable members of our community.
Like the other temporary hotel shelter programs, clients have access to their own rooms, receive comprehensive wrap-around supports, including mental and physical health supports, harm reduction supports, and specialized staff who will work with residents to develop permanent housing and employment plans.
Since April 2020, 1,600 people living in 64 encampments across the city have been referred to indoor spaces, including hotels rooms, shelters, and rent-geared-to-income housing units.
Also, between April 2020 and April 2021, the City helped more than 5,500 individuals experiencing homelessness find permanent housing through the Rapid Re-Housing Initiative and with housing allowances.
This is good work, but we know that much more still needs to be done. I am grateful for the activism, the leadership, and the compassion of the community, who have stepped up to care for and advocate alongside those who have experienced homelessness, including people living in encampments.
As the Chair of the Board of Health, I'm working closely with Toronto Public Health and City staff to expand health and harm reduction facilities in shelter programs, and to continue demanding and advocating for Province to step up. And as we learn more about COVID-19 and variants of concern, we are also continually implementing enhanced measures for infection prevention and control in our shelters and shelter hotels programs.
Vaccination for people experiencing homelessness is a top priority under way right now by the City of Toronto COVID-19 Task Force, Toronto Public Health, and our local hospital partners. We successfully advocated for the Province of Ontario to allow vaccinations in shelters and encampments as part of the first priority phase of the roll-out. To date, more than 7,100 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered to people experiencing homelessness, people who are precariously housed, as well as people working in the homelessness and housing sector through on-site clinics in the shelters or mobile clinics in the community. All shelter programs, including temporary sites, have now hosted at least one vaccine clinic on-site, and 50% of shelter residents have received their first dose. Dozens of additional vaccine clinics are underway this week. Outreach and clinics will continue to be brought directly to shelters, drop-ins, and encampments for additional opportunities to get vaccinated.
I know the prospect of encampment clearances is a source of deep concern, and I understand why. I believe that residents of encampments – our neighbours, and my constituents – should be offered a range of safe and secure indoor housing options. Nobody should be asked to leave without access to safe indoor accommodation. We know that one-size-fits-all doesn’t work when it comes to shelter and housing, and we're continuing to work hard to ensure there are more options in a variety of locations, including downtown, along with harm reduction and wrap-around supports available.
But there are significant health risks to living outdoors. We know that prolonged experience being homeless can significantly impact people's health. Our Toronto Public Health data shows that average life expectancy for people experiencing homelessness in our city is 20 years shorter than those who have access to safe and secure housing. That's precisely why we must work to expand housing options. Our task right now isn’t just to provide shelter – it’s to end homelessness. That’s how we will truly improve health outcomes.
Fundamentally, we need to address our housing crisis by creating more supportive and affordable housing. We need to address the overdose crisis by expanding safe supply programs, integrating provincial health care services into shelters, and working towards decriminalization of personal possession of illicit substances. We need to tackle the economic crisis caused by this pandemic by getting the Ontario Government to end residential evictions, and scale up income assistance support. We need all of these measures, and we need them now.
Permanent solutions to ending chronic homelessness are not possible without increased, long-term funding commitments from the Federal and Provincial Governments. These are necessary in order to meet the City's supportive housing target of 1,800 new supportive housing units each and every year for 10 years.
I am grateful for the recent funding from the federal government that has helped the City to start building new modular housing and to acquire the existing Super 8 hotel at 222 Spadina Avenue in Ward 10 for conversion to supportive affordable housing. These investments need to be further scaled up and matched by ongoing commitments from the Province in order to create enough new affordable and supportive housing to meet the scale of our housing crisis.
I will continue to push for the acquisition and conversion of more housing options, including vacant TCHC units, hotels, and apartment buildings to provide stable, secure, and affordable housing, along with wrap-around supports, for people experiencing homelessness. And I will continue to work to accelerate City-led affordable housing projects in our community, including at 150 Queens Wharf Road, 260 Adelaide Street West, and 15 Denison Avenue.
Until we as a country have ended chronic homelessness, and all the residents of our city have a home – until that criteria is met, our work will not stop.
Thank you for being part of the push to help us get there.