The need for physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has cut the capacity of many shelters in half and city staff are now recommending a strategy that would convert some of those facilities into permanent housing instead.

Since March, the city has removed 2,300 spaces from its existing shelter programs in order to ensure that there can be a distance of at least two metres between each bed.

At the same time, it has created nearly as many new spaces (2,200) by opening up 25 temporary shelter sites, including 19 in hotels.

In a report that will go before the city’s economic and community development committee next week, staff say that the city should secure the extension of leases on those sites to “maintain the current physical distancing in the shelter system” for the foreseeable future.

Staff, however, say that the city should also take steps to convert some shelters that may no longer be financially viable into permanent support housing.

They are proposing that two to three pilot projects be implemented in the next six to 12 months to convert existing shelter facilities into “supportive housing for long-term shelter stayers.”

They also say that the city should convert three planned shelter sites that are not yet in development into supportive housing, including one such facility slated for Lake Shore Boulevard West in New Toronto that has faced opposition from some community members.

Finally, the staff report goes on to note that any new shelter that is already in development will have to be redesigned to meet COVID-19 health guidelines and will likely see a 40 to 70 per cent reduction in capacity.

That could create the need for additional shelter facilities to be rethought as well.

“The HousingTO Plan previously identified that staff would explore opportunities to leverage existing shelter properties for development of supportive housing. In the context of the pandemic, where physical distancing measures have resulted in reductions to the capacity of some shelter sites by more than 50 per cent and the costs to provide shelter as a result of expanded facilities has almost doubled, the case for this approach is even stronger,” the report states.

Fewer refugee claimants in shelters

The expansion of the shelter system to support physical distancing is projected to cost the city $169.2 million by the end of 2020, though much of that is expected to be offset by funding from the provincial and federal governments.

In the report, staff say that the “unprecedented effort to save lives” has been largely successful and that the new temporary facilities “provide our best protection for mitigating the spread of COVID-19” going forward.

That said some concerns do remain as the city plans for future resurgences of COVID-19.

The staff report says that one of the reasons that the city has been able to maintain physical distancing in its shelters is because overall occupancy has decreased since the beginning of the pandemic, likely due to a decline in new refugee claimants entering the system.

The report notes that the number of refugee claimants in the shelter system dropped by 1,350 people between March and mid-September.

As a result, the average occupancy in the shelter system fell from 7,500 people per night in January to just over 6,100 people per night in August.

“Given that the shelter system in Toronto is stretched to capacity in operating 25 new shelter locations to meet physical distancing requirements, the system would not be able to accommodate a sudden increase in shelter demand by new refugee claimant arrivals should the border re-open,” the report warns.

The city is planning to operate 560 new temporary spaces for the homeless this winter, including 240 beds in hotel-based programs. It is an increase on the 485 additional beds that the city added last winter.