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City says ‘nobody is being turned away’ as unhoused people seek shelter in extreme cold

Despite being full on Wednesday, all five of the city’s warming centres are open this evening, the city said, as Toronto braces for another frigid night.

As part of its 2023/2024 Winter Services Plan for People Experiencing Homelessness, the City of Toronto annouced that it would operate four warming centres with just under 180 spaces. These sites, which open when the temperature reaches -5 C and/or when Environment Canada issues a winter weather event warning, are located at 136 Spadina Rd., 75 Elizabeth St., 12 Holmes Ave., and 885 Scarborough Golf Club Rd.

A fifth warming centre, a 30-space location at the Cecil Community Centre, near Spadina Avenue and College Street, is also available for when the temperature dips to below -15 C. This location was activated for the first time on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, when the weather felt like -20 C with the wind chill, the City of Toronto added 60 more spaces to its 24-hour respite site at the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place bringing the total number of spots available there to 300.

A city spokesperson told that those six sites all reached “full capacity” last night, but assured that they “remain open and operational” and that no one would be left out in the cold.

“If someone arrives at a full Warming Centre, respite site or other location, staff are working hard to make an accommodation plan, but everyone is being offered warm space indoors, and nobody is being turned away,” she said, adding that they’ll only know on Friday morning if all of the spots were taken tonight.

Another way people experiencing homelessness are being kept warm is on TTC buses.

Last night, five electric buses were parked outside Spadina Station for vulnerable community members. On Thursday, TTC spokesperson Stuart Green told CP24 that they typically make available up to five buses each day depending on the need.

Green said that sheltering unhoused people on the TTC during the coldest days of the year is something that they’ve been “preparing for – starting last winter when we saw the numbers of people using public transit for shelter increasing.”

He also noted that this situation is not unique to Toronto as other cities in North America are also seeing people turning to transit for warmth during the winter months.

“We’ve made significant investments in adding extra personnel, street outreach workers into the transit system to assist people to try and find shelter if it’s available,” Green said, noting that the buses are meant to transport those seeking beds to an available shelter, and when there are no spaces, vulnerable people are allowed to stay on them overnight.

“Our policy is if people are using the transit system for shelter and they’re not causing any kind of safety or security risk, either to themselves or to others, if there’s no immediate threats, they’re allowed to stay on the system to keep warm.”

“We will not put people out in the cold on days like today,” he said on Wednesday evening.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday morning following a news conference at a public library in Midtown Toronto, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said that the city is “doing (its) best” to provide shelter for vulnerable people during this cold snap.

“We’re opening up warming centers so in freezing cold weather no one’s left out in the street,” she said.

“And we are opening up more shelters. There’s millions of dollars in here, extra, of opening more shelters. We are doing what we can under this financial strain.”

Chow’s remarks came in response to a letter sent by Quebec Premier François Legault to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that asked him to slow down the number of asylum seekers/refugee claimants permitted to enter Quebec.

Chow indicated that she is not in favour of taking that step.

For more than six months, the City of Toronto’s shelter system has been under increased pressure with an influx of refugees in need of shelter.

In late May, Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie announced that the city would begin referring refugees and asylum seekers who show up at full shelters to federal programs, effective June. 1.

Toronto has since made several requests for extra financial assistance from the provincial and federal governments. And while some funds have come in, the city is still waiting on $97 million promised by the feds.

Prior to this latest crisis, the City of Toronto was already having a hard time accommodating the number of people seeking a space in the shelter system. The most recent city data from December showed that on average 170 people were turned away nightly.

According to city officials, there are roughly 10,000 people in Toronto’s shelter system, with about a third of them being refugees.

-With files from’s Bryann Aguilar.   

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