Has Toronto’s election focused enough on homelessness?

Cold weather has already arrived and more is on the way, but with just days to go until Toronto’s election, some are wondering why those who intend to lead the city for the next four years aren’t focusing more on the city’s ongoing struggle with homelessness.

The city and its leaders have long maintained that parks aren’t for people to live in, yet as emergency shelters continue to be closed and a lack of adequate space in the shelter system, advocates say there are few places left for people to go.

Read more: Toronto set to close 3rd emergency homeless shelter

“I’ve only gotten two people into the shelter system in the past three months,” said Diana Chan McNally, the harm reduction manager at All Saint Church Community Centre. She said in September, city shelters were so crammed,170 people were being turned away on a daily basis.

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However, Chan McNally said she hasn’t heard nearly enough during the election to match the crisis.

Harm reduction worker Diana Chan McNally said the next city council needs to address a lack of shelter space immediately. Matthew Bingley/Global News

“We’ve been talking about housing, but the flip side is we have to talk about homelessness,” she said. “A lot of people’s lives are at risk by being put outside, especially during the wintertime. And the fact that it isn’t really being talked about during the election is a major concern for us doing the work.”

In Toronto Centre, where some some of the city’s biggest homeless encampments are found, nine candidates are running to be the ward’s new councillor.

Among them is Chris Moise, who said homeless encampments have exposed the cracks in the system, pointing to a large one in Allan Gardens which he said was one of the ward’s biggest challenges. While he said housing is a human right, he doesn’t think living in the city’s parks is safe for people in tents or other local residents.

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“I don’t believe in forcible removal of people in encampments, but I do want to see them properly housed,” he said. With winter coming, Moise said the city should be extending temporary solutions until something more permanent can be established.

“These are stop-gap measures, but I feel it’s necessary until we actually build the housing as it’s needed,” said Moise. “I do believe we need various types of housing, supportive housing, affordable housing, even co-op housing.”

Toronto Centre city council candidate Chris Moise said Toronto should be extending temporary measures until more permanent housing is built. Matthew Bingley/Global News

Nicki Ward is also running for council in the ward and said city officials need to rethink how they approach the issue through social outreach, adding the problem won’t be solved by simply giving someone a room.

“You cannot just put people into containers,” Ward said “The system of measurement that’s used by the city — i.e., number of beds — just causes people to stack them closer together and higher, which then makes the problem even worse.”

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Ward said it’s more important to get to the root cause of the problem, which requires an approach that better identifies specific needs of an individual, including supports for disabilities, mental health or addictions.

City council candidate Nicki Ward said the city needs to do a better job of identifying individual needs to address the root causes of those experiencing homelessness. Matthew Bingley/Global News

Read more: City of Toronto spent nearly $2M to clear 3 homeless encampments, repair parks

Regardless of who wins on Oct. 24, Chan McNally said the next city council will have to take immediate action to address the issue.

“It’s pretty dire and I think across the sector, we’re seeing a lot of people who are just unable to access services,” she said. “So what needs to happen? Increase that space immediately.”

She also said the city should be keeping shelter homes open until the city has more housing built.

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“It’s irresponsible and vastly harmful to be closing these spaces at a time when poverty has never been so visible and high and we will see people die as a result of this if we do not reverse this decision now,” she said.

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