Transit ridership is increasing this fall as students return to school and more people return to the office. With it, there may be increased concerns about violence on the TTC.
Concerns about transit safety have been linked to houseless people and people with mental illness. However, the evidence shows they are more likely to be the victims of crimes rather than the perpetrators.
The City of Toronto should bear this in mind when thinking about transit safety. Doing more to decrease the root causes of houselessness and improving support for minoritized groups is the best way to make the TTC safe for those most at risk.
Among those most vulnerable to outdoor homelessness are low-income, 2SLGBTQ+ youth, single men and Black, Indigenous and other racialized people. These groups are more likely to experience multiple health challenges, namely mental health and substance use issues, and physical disabilities. In addition to providing important access to mental health and medical appointments, transit is integral to accessing other health-promoting resources and activities, including food pantries, shelters, income supports and job interviews.
While outdoor houselessness is a longstanding issue in the city, it was exacerbated over the pandemic with a 40 per cent increase in people sheltering outdoors between 2018 and 2021, in part due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the shelter system. Despite efforts to increase available beds, shelters remain over capacity and other sectors, especially transit, are met with the increasing demands for alternative shelter space.
A temporary increase of police and security presence on Toronto public transit was introduced this spring in response to safety concerns. Acknowledging the wider and more nuanced issue regarding mental health and violence however, public criticisms emphasized that increasing policing only ensures safety for some while leaving people experiencing houselessness feeling less safe on transit. In 2021, TTC operators also petitioned for increased social and harm reduction supports to address houselessness.
Transit agencies and governments in other metropolitan cities have applied punitive and outreach approaches in response to houselessness in public transit areas. Punitive measures have been criticized as a form of unjust criminalization of those living in poverty and are not intended to meet the needs of houseless populations. On the other hand, outreach approaches engage people experiencing houselessness with the aim of connecting them to supports and services. This is done through crisis response and mental health training for transit operators and increased social workers or outreach workers. Other measures may include introducing trained law enforcement in transit areas, though a review has found keeping law enforcement separate from outreach activities has led to increased trust between unhoused riders and outreach workers, increasing the likelihood of connecting people to supportive services.
Recognizing the need for outreach approaches, the City of Toronto, TTC and LOFT Community Services have partnered to deliver outreach supports for unhoused people using transit spaces through a one-year pilot. The project includes de-escalation training for TTC staff, Streets to Homes services to refer people to indoor spaces and security guards trained in mental health first aid, overdose prevention and crisis intervention. Increased outreach in the TTC would connect unhoused people with immediate needs including food and shelter as well as mental health, harm reduction and other social supports.
As the pilot rolls out, it should consider an equitable and trauma-informed approach to be effective in addressing the immediate needs of unhoused people in the city:
- The project should coincide with adequate funding and strategy to increase capacities and match needs across shelter and social services systems.
- Referrals should include income and housing supports, including supportive housing, in addition to shelter systems (e.g., Housing First program).
- The pilot should reconsider the role of law enforcement in establishing trust among unhoused people.
- Targeted interventions have shown to be successful at responding to the unique needs of groups like 2SLGBTQ+ youth, Black and Indigenous peoples and people with serious mental health and substance use issues.
Public transit is a necessity for many, including houseless people. The City of Toronto and TTC have taken important steps to ensuring those sheltering in public transit are supported with proper resources. However, outreach, emergency and crisis-based interventions alone are inadequate to address the root issues of homelessness. In order to see impactful results, outreach initiatives for houseless people need to be a part of long-term strategic plans focused on upstream approaches that move people into safe and affordable housing.