Bid to open warming centres 24/7 for the unhoused rejected by Toronto city council

Some Toronto city councillors are warning a vote Wednesday against opening Toronto’s warming centres 24/7 until mid-April will put the lives of the unhoused at risk.

In a 15-11 vote, council effectively rejected a Board of Health recommendation to expand warming centre hours and to declare homelessness a public health crisis. Instead, council adopted a motion from Coun. Michael Thompson calling on the province and federal governments to provide them with more assistance to address homelessness.

Coun. Ausma Malik said the decision will mean people who are unhoused will continue to be put at risk, especially during extreme cold weather.

“If you live in this city, if you ride transit, if you use our public services, if you’ve been listening, then you will know that there is a crisis of homelessness in Toronto,” said Malik, who represents Ward 10, Spadina-Fort York.

“And today, right now, this council decided not to act on it.”

The vote comes comes after advocates for the unhoused called on council earlier this week to vote in favour of the Board of Health recommendation. They said the matter is “life or death” for thousands of unhoused people in Toronto. A total of 110 people died in the shelter system alone last year, according to the city’s figures, while Toronto Public Health estimates the overall number of unhoused people who died in the first half of 2022 was 92.

Toronto has four warming centres that open at 7 p.m. the day a cold weather alert is issued. Temperatures typically need to dip below -15 C, or feel like -20 C with the wind chill, for them to open. But advocates for the unhoused say that threshold is arbitrary and exposes people experiencing homelessness to potential injury or death. 

Thompson’s motion also asks that the head of the city’s shelter and housing administration report on the feasibility of providing 24/7 drop in spaces.

Council ignoring health experts, advocates, Malik says

Malik challenged Thompson during the debate, saying he was ignoring the problem.

“I just want to be clear that instead of responding to this crisis, listening to experts and saving lives, your amendment is amounting to us doing absolutely nothing more to actually address the serious urgency of the issue,” she said.

Thompson, who represents Ward 21, Scarborough Centre, shot back that he was trying to respond within the city’s ability to address homelessness, which is a national problem.

“I’m actually trying to do something,” he said. “I don’t want to try to highlight and try to create a crisis … where we can’t do anything about it.”

Ausma Malik
Coun. Ausma Malik says she is disappointed by a council vote opting not to open warming centres for the unhoused 24/7 until mid-April. She says the move puts people at risk of injury in the extreme cold. (CBC)

The city’s manager of shelter and housing administration told council it would cost $400,000 a month to open each warming centre 24/7 and that money is currently not in his budget.

Thompson said he isn’t opposed to opening the centres around the clock, but the city needs people to staff the spaces and money from the province and federal government to make it happen. Right now, it has neither, he added.

“So defining it as a crisis, just to call attention to it, doesn’t give us a result and I think I have some real great concerns about that,” he said.

Coun. Gord Perks said he was disappointed council rejected the Board of Health’s recommendation, adding that the city needs to step up where other levels of government are failing.

“I believe that the City of Toronto is the last line of defence when the federal government isn’t building enough housing, when the provincial government doesn’t have a mental health system,” said Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park.

“If we as a city, and council, are not making every effort we can to house people we are putting people’s lives at risk.”

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker, said she wasn’t surprised by council’s decision but is disappointed. 

“The city votes today tells me that it doesn’t really matter what people are saying to them,” she said. “It feels like the lives of vulnerable people are not prioritized.”

Mayor John Tory listens to city budget deputations on Jan. 17, 2023. The public had their first opportunity to speak to Tory and city councillors after the proposed $16 billion spending package was introduced last week.
Mayor John Tory is seen here listening to city budget deputations last month. In a statement released Wednesday, Tory’s office says it ‘defies logic and the facts’ to argue that the city hasn’t taken action to deal with homelessness under his leadership. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

A spokesperson for Mayor John Tory’s office said last year the city helped 3,900 people move into permanent housing and the shelter system has expanded from 6,000 beds to 9,000.

“Under Mayor Tory’s leadership this city government has taken action to help homeless residents and it defies logic and the facts laid out in the city’s budgets to argue otherwise,” Taylor Deasley said in a statement.

On Tuesday, council voted to adopt a shelter transition plan which could see up to five temporary shelter hotels closed by the end of the year.

Gord Tanner, the general manager of the city’s shelter and housing administration, said four of the five hotels have said they no longer want to continue to lease their properties to the city. 

The city’s shelter system has been expanded in recent years to include 9,000 beds. But more than 186 people a night, on average, were turned away from shelters in November.

Tanner was pressed by city councillors about how many shelter beds the city would need to satisfy the demand. 

“I don’t have a number that would answer that question,” he said.

“Our experience has been as soon as we open a shelter program, it fills up very quickly.”

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