Toronto's homeless community demands better winter plan from city

A homeless person is seen in downtown Toronto, on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

Toronto's homeless community and their supporters are demanding a better plan from the city for the coming winter.

The Shelter Housing Justice Network, which represents members of the homeless community and those who work with them, issued a report Tuesday with several recommendations.

The group wants the city to extend leases it holds on hotels that are used to house the homeless during the pandemic.

The group also wants to city to allow the homeless to camp in public spaces.

"The city must repeal the no-camping bylaw," said Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries Toronto. "People have the right to exist."

Homeless encampments popped up throughout the city when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Hundreds fled shelters for fear of contracting the virus.

The city won a court battle last year that upheld its powers to enact and enforce the no-camping bylaw.

This past summer, the city cleared three encampments in public parks, some of it by force from the police riot squad. The city said the encampments were not safe.

The overdose crisis in the province is also hitting the homeless at a much higher rate than the general public.

On Tuesday, advocates added 16 names -- many John Does -- on a memorial for homeless people who have died on the streets and in shelters during August and September.

"We are in the middle of an escalating overdose crisis," Cook said at the memorial outside the Holy Trinity church.

"Our loved ones and fiends are dying. Half of the people who die without housing die of drug toxicity -- this is alarming and must be addressed."

Jennifer Jewell, who lived in an encampment before taking the city's offer to move in to a shelter hotel downtown 10 months ago, said safe housing should be the city's highest priority.

"We need housing now, people need to be provided safe spaces to heal, they need homes," Jewell said.

While shelter hotels provide a room, she said the city needs to offer more harm reduction because she's seen many die in her hotel alone. She said it took the city 11 months to set up a peer-support program to help with the overdoses.

"Please help us," Jewell said. "Police are no solution."

The city did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the groups' recommendations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2021.