Winter is finally here and city services and non-profit agencies prepare for an influx of people seeking shelter from harsh weather. Toronto’s Cold Weather Plan lays out a number of different options for ensuring that Toronto’s most vulnerable residents are protected from the health impacts of cold weather. These include the shelter system, which operates year-round; two 24-hour drop-in programs, available from mid-December to February and on other designated “extreme cold” days as needed; and Out of the Cold programs, available November-March regardless of weather conditions. All of these options are funded by the City, though shelters are often managed by independent community agencies and Out of the Cold programs are run by faith-based volunteer groups.
Winter weather is not unusual or noteworthy. It’s a routine part of life in Ontario. When the temperature dips below -15, the City of Toronto calls an Extreme Cold Weather Alert, prompting extended homelessness services including opening 24-hour drop-ins and relaxing service restrictions at regular shelters. There were 12 cold weather alerts last year (an unusually warm season), 39 in 2014-2015, and 36 in 2013-2014. This winter is predicted to be cold and snowy once again, putting the health of people experiencing homelessness at risk for weeks at a time. Many of these people will turn to Out of the Cold programs and 24-hour drop-ins due to the shelter system’s limited capacity or restrictions.
Although the Cold Weather Strategy treats them as such, these measures are simply not designed to be a substitute for shelters. An OCAP report released last year showed that these programs consistently fail to meet the City of Toronto’s own shelter standards. Many facilities don’t meet the minimum health and safety requirements (for example, an inadequate number of bathrooms and overcrowding in sleeping areas). Nurses, mental health counsellors, or social workers are rarely available on site to provide critical services to participants. These short-term programs also can’t provide the stability that a normal shelter does. Out of the Cold programs operate on a shared schedule, so participants need to pack up and move to another facility each day. Beyond the months of January and February, 24-hour drop-ins are only open when a cold weather alert is called, so participants can’t be sure if the programs will be open until the afternoon of the same day.
Without any doubt, service providers are doing the best that they can with the resources they have. However, with a shelter system that is consistently over-capacity, these “temporary” programs have become an entrenched part of the city’s response to homelessness.
Providing people with the basic necessities for survival – a mat to sleep on, a roof over their heads, food and water – is necessary in an emergency. Comprehensive policies are needed to protect peoples’ health and safety during unforeseen events; a well run public service will develop plans for extra-ordinary events and will kick in when things like this go wrong. It is absolutely the case that we should not have to rely on the charity of others during these times. In fact, the “state of emergency” or “natural disaster” designation is specifically so that federal money is given to areas hit by extreme and unpredictable events.
So In a city like Toronto, is it reasonable to treat harsh winter weather as an anomaly? Is it responsible or sustainable to build a shelter system that consistently relies on external support?
Toronto’s shelter system is in incredibly high demand: the need is most pronounced in the winter, but the system is at or above capacity year-round. There is a desperate need for an expanded shelter system, with more beds and a broader range of options for individuals, couples, and families. Although the urgency of this issue has been well-identified, the proposed 2.6% cuts across all city services will make it difficult to respond. As the city explores new revenue tools, the shelter system—the last resort for Toronto’s most vulnerable residents—should be a priority.
Although it can protect people from acute health risks, the shelter system is no substitute for an equitable housing system that keeps people from becoming homeless in the first place. The National Housing Strategy released recently set a broad mandate to create more affordable housing options that meets the distinct needs of those facing health and mental health challenges. To make this a reality, provincial and federal governments will need to commit to sustainable long-term funding. In the meantime, a safer and more accessible shelter system can protect the health and well-being of Toronto’s most vulnerable residents.