Unhoused face ‘life or death,’ advocates say as Toronto looks at expanding warming centre hours

A motion to expand the hours for warming centres is expected to come before Toronto city council this week in the wake of a loud demonstration by advocates for the homeless on Monday.

The protest came a day before the first city council session of the new year. Dozens of people gathered outside city hall to speak out against what they say is inaction that’s killing and injuring people experiencing homelessness.

They want council to adopt a recommendation made by Toronto’s Board of Health last month to keep warming centres open around the clock until April 15. The demonstrators took part in a “die-in,” lying down on the cold concrete in Nathan Philips Square as a tribute to the unhoused people who died in the city this year. 

“This is life or death for people,” said Lorraine Lam of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network.

In addition to keeping warming centres open longer, the motion calls on the city to declare homelessness a public health crisis “based on systemic failure” of all three levels of government to provide safe, 24 hour respite spaces.

Advocates question warming centre opening threshold

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 say that threshold is arbitrary and exposes people experiencing homelessness to potential injury or death. 

“We’re asking that they just keep the warming centres open all winter, in recognition that … even if it’s one degree, and you’ve got cold rain or freezing rain, that’s really dangerous for hypothermia,” outreach worker Greg Cook said.

“Sometimes, it’s more dangerous because you get wet and you can’t get dry and can’t get warm.”

An arrow on a sign near a doorway shows the building is a warming centre open 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Toronto has four warming centres that open at 7 p.m. the day a cold weather alert is issued. (City of Toronto/Twitter)

Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who is a member of the Board of Health and voted for the resolution to keep the centres open until April 15, said the city must take to action to save lives.

She said health professionals told the board compelling stories of treating people who have lost fingers and toes because they have been exposed to the elements.

And last week, Toronto experienced some of the most frigid temperatures of this winter season, adding new urgency to the debate, she said.

“The level of interest in this motion started even before the cold snap,” she said.

“With the voices being raised by health practitioners, in particular, I think medical doctors and emergency department chiefs have made a big impact. That’s a credible and powerful voice.”

Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s, said he is concerned council may not adopt the Board of Health’s recommendation. But he stressed that this isn’t a debate about whether or not the city can solve the housing and homelessness crisis.

“This is a debate over, ‘Are we going to do the bare minimum?”‘ he said.

“Are we going to do the bare minimum and ensure that there are 24/7 locations where people who don’t have shelter can be warm and safe when it’s cold outside.”

Tory undecided how he will vote

Mayor John Tory’s office said he has not yet decided how he’ll vote on the Board of Health motion, saying he will listen to the views of fellow councillors, Toronto Public Health and city staff before deciding.

Tory’s office points to a recent deputation from Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, in which she said while warming centres and shelters are “lifesaving interventions” the better overall solution is affordable and supportive housing.

“This is why Mayor Tory supports all of the city’s efforts on all of these fronts and why he has worked to move supportive housing forward,” spokesperson Taylor Deasley said in a statement.

In addition to the Board of Health’s motion, council will also consider a plan from the Economic Development Committee to extend the leases on some of it’s temporary shelter hotels, while closing up to five of the centres this year. 

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