The post-pandemic future: Every homeless person will get a room of their own
Cathy Crowe is a street nurse and public affiliate at Ryerson University
The problems at Toronto’s homeless shelters have been documented for years. They’re plagued by underfunding, inadequate capacity, crowding, lack of privacy, violence, disease outbreaks and infestations. In recent years especially, shelter expansion has faced an uphill battle, between competing demands for city dollars and NIMBY discrimination fuelling neighbourhood resistance to shelters in their communities. What most people don’t know is that the shelter system has deteriorated to the point that there is now a second class of shelters to accommodate the growing number of homeless people. These include respite shelters, the faith-based Out of the Cold, the blue-and-white domes that warehouse 100 people inside on cots, and day drop-in programs, where women sleep on mats or in chairs, protected from the elements as well as sexual predators. Imagine spending years without a proper bed and with multiple strangers only 18 inches away from you at all times. Imagine the toll on your physical and mental health.
There is a bigger problem looming in our city: homeless encampments. Toronto has always had small groupings of people living in river valleys, parks, under bridges, along the waterfront. Most famous was the tent city at the foot of Cherry Street that by 2003 had grown into an established encampment of 140 people. I was part of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee that brought in aid: pre-fab houses, insulation and roofing for the shacks, a generator and fuel, portable toilets, camping showers and lots of food. Last year, outreach workers began to witness a new eruption of encampments dotting main streets and shopping areas in Toronto. They were caused by a growing income divide, a spike in evictions and the lack of a national housing program. Today, outreach workers estimate 1,500 to 2,500 people are living outside, and those numbers will only get worse in the months to come as more people lose their jobs during the pandemic. At the very least, city departments must provide the basics of public health and city services: a safe source of running water for drinking and handwashing, adequate washroom facilities, showers, garbage and recycling pickup, and social support.
In the long term, however, Covid-19 is a wake-up call to the city to do right by its homeless population. People can’t physically distance, stay home or wash their hands frequently if they’re in a shelter or living on the street. We need a revolution in how we provide shelter and support—we need one room per person. For shelters, that means no more congregate settings with 40 to 100 people in one space. No more pairing people with strangers as roommates. And please, enough with the bunk beds: during the early months of the pandemic, a legal coalition had to take the city to court to achieve two-metre distancing and the discontinuation of bunk beds in all shelters.
In a proactive measure to protect vulnerable homeless people from Covid, the city has moved 1,500 people from crowded shelters into single hotel rooms. The city provides staffing support and meals. It works. It has likely been a key variable in preventing what could have been massive Covid transmission in the shelters. The hiccup? These spaces are only temporary.
To give each person their own room, we need to find some 8,000 new homes, and sooner rather than later. The decent thing to do now is to move these people into permanent housing, not back into shelters. This can only happen with increases to social assistance rates, with government dollars for rent supplements. The city needs federal and provincial money to purchase hotels and apartment buildings facing receivership and transform them into social housing. And the economic benefits of housing versus shelter are undeniable. The average monthly cost of a shelter bed in Canada is $1,932, while a rent supplement is $701 and a social housing unit $200. These hotel conversions have worked well in Vancouver. And they can work here too.