The City of Toronto has a approach to helping individuals in encampments that focuses on:

  • the safety of those living in encampments
  • working with partners to provide essential supports, focusing on health and wellbeing
  • building trusting relationships to support the transition to indoor settings
  • providing access to safer, indoor spaces including shelter and housing

Encampments are only cleared once everyone has been offered safer, inside space, and notice has been provided with time to go through belongings.

Addressing homelessness, including encampments, is a complex social issue. It requires all levels of government, community agencies and other stakeholders to work together to provide public, social and health-related supports.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a noticeable increase in the number and size of encampments. This is due to a number of reasons such as:

  • people moving from ravines and more remote locations into more visible areas
  • reduced options due to the pandemic for people to stay with friends, family or other temporary accommodations
  • fears related to COVID-19 in the shelter system
  • an increase in the number of people discharged from provincial correctional facilities, who may not have housing to return to
    • According to Statistics Canada, between February and April, the number of adults in provincial custody declined by 29% in Ontario, which is more than 2,300 people.
  • the closure of other provincial programs and services (i.e. detox, withdrawal and mental health facilities)

The City’s pandemic response initially focused on opening temporary shelters to create physical distancing in the shelter system. However, since late-April, in response to the growing numbers of safety concerns for those sleeping outdoors, focus has shifted to also providing safer indoor spaces for people staying in encampments.

The City and community partners have mobilized a COVID-19 response to support those living outside that includes:

  • access to safer indoor space, shelter and housing
  • education and infection prevention measures, including access to City-operated facilities with showers, washrooms and drinking water
  • harm reduction and encampment health and safety

The City’s Emergency Operations Centre, which has been activated due to COVID-19, provides multiple divisions with resources, including logistical and other supports to help respond to encampments.

The City’s Streets to Homes outreach team and partner agencies do daily outreach to proactively connect with people living in encampments.

Outreach workers are familiar with encampments and the individuals in them, offering:

  • immediate access to safe, inside spaces
  • COVID-19 education, screening and referrals to provincial COVID-19 assessment centres
  • help with accessing ID
  • health care including mental health and harm reduction supports
  • help developing a housing plan
  • water and help accessing nearby meal programs or food banks
  • blankets, sleeping bags and warm winter clothing

The City is not currently distributing tents to individuals experiencing homelessness; however, this is currently being reviewed.

Mental and primary health care support

Streets to Homes and Toronto Paramedic Services conduct ongoing wellness checks of individuals in encampments and recently partnered with Inner City Health Associates to provide additional nursing support to ensure increased access to health services. The City has provided clinic space for this partnership so clients can discuss and have their health needs responded to in a confidential setting.

The City has also deployed a Multi-Disciplinary Outreach team (M-DOT) made up of providers from various organizations that deliver services to the most vulnerable individuals on the street and in shelters. M-DOT includes Outreach Workers, Case Managers, a Registered Nurse, a Housing Worker and part-time Psychiatrists.

Access to washrooms

Park washrooms are open to the public and many remain open in winter.

In addition, the City has opened a number of facilities with showers, washrooms and drinking water for all individuals in need of these services. Supplies at these stations are replenished regularly. Visit Washroom and Sanitation Services for a list of locations and hours.

Since the pandemic began, the City has:

  • referred more than 1,335 individuals living outside to safer, inside spaces and cleared about 80 encampments

Between May and December 2020, the City:

  • referred more than 2,800 people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing through a combination of housing allowances and rent-geared-to-income units. This represents a 50 per cent increase over the same period in 2019.

Over the past 10 years, the City has:

  • helped 6,000 individuals sleeping outside secure permanent housing and 80 percent remain housed after one year.

The City is aware there has been an increase in the number and size of encampments as well as concerns about the safety and well-being of people living outdoors, and the impact on the local community.

There may be a misperception that living outdoors is a safer alternative to staying in a congregate setting such as a shelter during a pandemic.

The safest place for anyone experiencing homelessness in Toronto is inside, in a shelter, hotel or, ultimately, housing. Conditions in encampments create significant health and safety concerns for those living outside, including:

  • open flames, generators and propane tanks
  • cold weather
  • lack of access to water and sanitation.

Encampments are not permitted in City parks as per the Parks Bylaw and people are not permitted to erect tents and other structures on City property under the Streets Use Bylaw.

The City has a multi-division encampment operations group that assesses risks in order to prioritize encampment response and better serve those in encampments.

Learn more about this work and who to call with questions or concerns.