Cold weather can have a devastating impact on people who are homeless, leading to hypothermia, frostbite and even death. Adequate shelter spaces and a safe and dignified outdoor outreach strategy are critical to supporting people living outdoors.
The City of Toronto’s 2023 Winter Services Plan outlined steps to support those who are sheltering outdoors this winter, including:
- Increasing the city’s shelter spaces by 180 by moving beds closer together.
- Activating emergency shelters and warming centres at lower temperature thresholds:
- 170 spaces across four warming centres, activated when temperatures reach -5 C
- a 24-hour respite site for 40 people
- one surge site during extreme cold weather
- Enhancing street outreach when weather reaches -15 C.
- Coordinating stronger efforts to move people out of homelessness.
While this plan is an improvement from previous years, even the city acknowledges it falls short.
Research by MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions found 72 per cent of hypothermic emergency department admissions among people who are homeless occurred when temperatures were warmer than -15 C. This study also found injuries more than doubled for every 1 mm of precipitation. While this year’s plan aims to open warming centres at -5 C, compared to -15 C in previous years, this still does not consider precipitation levels which add to the risk.
The added 350 additional shelter and warming centre spaces are inadequate for the number of unhoused people outdoors. The city’s shelter and housing services were already over capacity in October, turning away about 275 people daily. However, this only accounts for the number of people seeking shelter and is a much lower estimate than the snapshot of 742 people living outdoors in April 2021.
Although shelter and housing services do not have enough spaces, the Winter Services Plan also lacks a strategy around encampments. While living outdoors can pose health risks, many unhoused people stay in encampments to maintain access to their social networks and local supports. In addition, forced and abrupt relocation when services are at capacity amplifies health risks instead of preventing them. A dignified outreach response is needed to build trust, ensure supports are available while people are living in encampments, and promote a safe relocation process.
More shelter and warming centre spaces, along with a safe outreach strategy, is needed to meet the needs of those living outdoors.
- The city should identify additional sites for warming centres, such as unused lots and city-leased spaces.
- The opening of warming centres should factor in the cold weather stress added by precipitation levels.
- The city should reduce the pressure on winter services capacity by housing those in need and preventing those at risk from falling into homelessness in the first place. In addition to increasing city dollars towards winter services, the city should also rapidly deploy funds such as the $600 million over three years from the Ontario government for shelter and homelessness support and the $97 million from the federal government earmarked for interim housing for asylum seekers.
- The city should create a safe and dignified encampment outreach strategy to ensure people living in encampments receive the basic supports they need, such as food, water and heating supplies. While shelters are at capacity, the city should place a moratorium on encampment evictions.
More needs to be done to ensure those sheltering outdoors are matched with services that meet their needs. While we work towards a new normal, where homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring and housing is affordable, adequate and healthy, we need to address the immediate needs of people living outdoors during the winter months now.