Advocates rally for affordable housing, shelter beds as some Toronto hotel shelters close

By Dilshad Burman

November 22 is recognized as National Housing Day in Toronto and advocates along with community members marked the day by gathering at David Crombie Park to rally for immediate action on affordable housing.

Advocates have long been calling on the City of Toronto to implement concrete housing plans, but they’re raising the alarm once again as some hotel shelter programs are coming to an end heading into the coldest months of the year.

“Last winter someone froze to death up the street from [David Crombie Park]. We saw a lot of hypothermia and frostbite cases … I really don’t want to see that happen again this year,” says Lorraine Lam from Shelter and Housing Justice.

“At the way things are going, we will see someone else freeze to death on our streets.”

Lam says the City of Toronto’s winter plan for those experiencing homelessness is woefully inadequate.

“The City’s winter plan talks about adding more shelter spaces, but it doesn’t talk about all the beds that are being shut down because of all the [shelter] closures that are happening. So, there’s no net gain in beds at all,” she says.

Lam points to the Novotel Hotel shelter on Esplanade Street that’s closing at the end of the year as one example that she says will send many out into the cold.

“A lot of the residents who are at the Novotel Hotel, they’re trying to get housing but there’s nothing that’s affordable, so they’re stuck. And so with the hotel closing where are people supposed to go? And again, there are not enough shelter spaces,” she says.

“So people are going to end up back on the streets, they’re going to be riding transit to stay warm, they’re going to be sleeping in stairwells, coffee shops — wherever they can stay warm because there’s no housing available.”

“You cannot get a shelter anywhere,” echoes Eileen Hannon from The Neighbourhood Group.

“We tried to phone central intake. It took me over a week to get a bed for one person.”

The City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration division staff say residents at the Novotel shelter are being offered alternatives at other shelters across the city.

“We run another 100 different shelter locations throughout the city, different parts of the city, different types of accommodation, and so the majority have gone to those sites,” says general manager Gord Tanner.

A current resident at the hotel says moving to another shelter is not an option for him and if he cannot find permanent housing before the shelter shuts down, he’d rather live on the streets.

“That’s the only thing I’m willing to do honestly,” says Christopher.

“I just don’t want to go to another shelter — [it’s the] drugs. I don’t want to be around all the fentanyl.”

RELATED: Toronto releases Winter Services plan for unhoused residents, advocates call for action

Lam says another challenge with relocation is that shelter residents are often moved to facilities far away from their communities and networks, including medical and social support systems.

“People are downtown, for instance, because there are a lot more resources here. When you send people further away from their supports, people are isolated. So, what actually ends up happening is people will come back downtown to access the services that they need, and they won’t end up back to wherever you sent them,” she says.

“It really is not a solution to displace people that way.”

Nerissa Maclean is a case manager with The Neighbourhood Group and has been working with a few Novotel shelter residents who, she says, have been “lucky enough” to find affordable housing. She adds not only is it in short supply, but the path to affordable accommodations through the city of Toronto is riddled with obstacles for someone who has been, or is, living on the streets.

“If you don’t do your income taxes you can’t get housed,” she says.

“How do you expect somebody who’s been chronically homeless for 10-plus years to give you a T4 to submit to Toronto Community Housing?”

In a statement about National Housing Day, Mayor John Tory says in part, “The City, in partnership with federal and provincial governments, is both increasing and speeding up the supply of new affordable and supportive rental homes to ensure that everyone has a warm safe place to call home.”

Lam says statements like these amount to nothing more than lip service.

“We hear this line all the time and yet the results we don’t see,” she says.

“I would say that if the mayor really cares about National Housing Day, he would stop all the encampment evictions that are happening, he would stop the closing of the hotel shelter programs, he would look at the city’s winter plan and admit that it’s far from adequate.”

Lam and Maclean both say all levels of government need to get involved and come up with a solution together.

“They [should] consider spending money on actually building housing right now, they [should] consider expropriating land right away – there’s a lot of things that they could be doing that they’re not doing,” Lam says.

City hosting housing summit focused on housing affordability

To mark National Housing Day, the City of Toronto is hosting atwo-day summit focused on “identifying key issues and opportunities to improve housing affordability in Toronto.”

The event will be held annually and aims to recognize the efforts of community and housing partners from various sectors in advancing affordable housing in the city.

In a news release, City staff say the topics of discussion during the summit will focus on “partnerships and innovation” to increase the supply of affordable housing.

“The summit also aims to highlight how interconnected the housing, health and justice systems are and how important it is to coordinate efforts across these sectors to meaningfully address the city’s housing challenges,” reads the release.

“It aims to help drive innovative practices and promote partnership-based solutions that can help make way for more affordable and sustainable housing, with critical supports, in Toronto.”

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