Today, as part of the City of Toronto’s commitment to continuing to support its most vulnerable residents, Toronto City Council voted to further bolster efforts to help ensure the safety of those experiencing homelessness during extreme winter weather. Council called for a review of current policies and procedures regulating the opening of City Warming Centres, in an effort to explore potential additional indoor spaces for those in need during cold weather.
The approved Council item asks staff to review current policies for Warming Centre activation and explore opportunities for greater flexibility. This review will include cost and resourcing implications for having more Warming Centres open for more days of the winter season. Staff will report back to the Economic and Community Development Committee on April 25.
Warming Centres are just one of many ways the City works to keep vulnerable people safe during winter weather. They are always activated when an Extreme Cold Weather Alert (ECWA) is called by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health based on a forecast from Environment and Climate Change Canada of -15 C or colder, or a wind chill of -20 C or colder, but are often activated in other conditions. Last winter, more than half the times Warming Centres opened were at times where there was no ECWA. Other circumstances taken into consideration to activate Warming Centres include colder nighttime temperatures, forecasted wind chill values and inclement weather alerts.
The report requested by Council will propose formalized criteria for when Warming Centres are opened, independent of ECWAs. It will also examine the feasibility of providing low-barrier, walk-in access to spaces open 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the winter. Council directed that consultation with homeless-serving organizations and people with lived experience help inform the recommendations put forward in the report.
To help address the immediate needs for warm indoor space, Council requested that each Councillor make best efforts to work with staff to identify a suitable location in their ward to serve as a Warming Centre this winter season, as was recently done by Councillor Dianne Saxe (University-Rosedale) with the Cecil Community Centre.
The City’s Winter Services Plan is adaptive and can evolve to changing needs. To ensure that people had a warm place to retreat from the extreme cold last week, the City added 432 additional spaces, made available by expanding Warming Centre capacity from 142 spaces to 195 spaces, and opening 237 temporary contingency spaces at various shelter site in areas currently not used as sleeping spaces, such as common areas.
Although Warming Centres closed to new intakes on Monday, the City has continued to provide warm, indoor shelter to those at these locations while staff work to refer people to spaces in the base shelter system.
Currently, the City’s network of shelter locations, 24-hour Respite Sites and Warming Centres can provide overnight emergency accommodation to more than 9,000 people experiencing homelessness. The shelter system continues to face increasing pressures. The stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid poisoning crisis, rising cost of living, increased demand from refugees and asylum seekers, and the urgent need for more supportive and affordable housing all contribute to many people facing significant hardships, placing them in need of emergency shelter and support.
Identifying the gravity of the problem and complexity of needs, Council also voted to establish a working table, led by the Medical Officer of Health, and comprised of physicians and medical experts who work with people experiencing homelessness, as well as people with lived experience, to conduct a review of the intersection of health and homelessness. Council requested that the advisory table report back to the Board of Health with results of their review and any relevant recommendations at their earliest convenience.
To further support these complex challenges, yesterday Council also approved the Shelter Transition and Relocation Plan Update, which included a recommendation for staff to work closely with other GTA municipalities on a coordinated regional response to support arrival of refugee and asylum seekers, as well as working with the provincial and federal governments to support those coordinated efforts.
As the City works to find innovative solutions that can be applied in the near-term, the need for affordable, supportive housing remains the long-term and permanent solution to ending chronic homelessness in the city.
Last year alone, the City helped 3,900 homeless individuals move into permanent housing.
In 2019, City Council adopted the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan (HousingTO Plan) which envisions a city with a diverse range of housing opportunities where families and individuals live in safe, well-maintained and affordable homes with respect and dignity, and where people have equal opportunities to succeed. This 10-year strategy aims to deliver a range of housing opportunities across the full housing continuum and calls for the approval of 40,000 new affordable rental homes, including 18,000 supportive homes. Currently, there are more than 100 City-led and/or City-supported affordable housing projects in the City’s development pipeline. These homes are intended to be delivered in partnership with the federal and provincial governments. Once completed, these projects will deliver more than 20,000 affordable rental and supportive homes. In addition to creating new supply, the City is also focused on homelessness prevention measures such as preserving our current housing stock and helping renters to maintain their housing.
This week Council again emphasized the importance of working with other levels of government to stress the immediate, urgent need to secure ongoing funding for supportive and affordable housing, as well as access to critical support programs that help prevent people from entering homelessness.
Council item HL1.6 – Cold weather and the effects on those experiencing homelessness is available on the City’s website.
“Warming Centres are one of the many important ways the City works to keep vulnerable people safe during winter weather. I want to thank staff who do the important work to make sure spaces in these Centres are available when they are needed. I welcome Council’s recommendation to explore how the criteria for Warming Centres can be examined to maximize days Warming Centres can serve those in need. I remain focused on working with Council and other orders of government to build as much supportive and deeply affordable housing as possible to create long-term sustainable pathways out of homelessness for our most vulnerable residents.”
– Mayor John Tory
“I applaud Council’s support of exploring creative solutions to how we can maximize use of Warming Centre spaces so all of those in need can access warm respite during the winter months.”
– Councillor Shelley Carroll (Don Valley North), Chair of the Economic and Community Development Committee
“I am grateful that Council is taking the opportunity to expand the use of Warming Centre locations for more days throughout the winter months. I look forward to the further development of these supports after seeing staff’s recommendations. By examining these important resources, we can use them to help even more people in need in communities across the city.”
– Councillor Chris Moise (Toronto Centre), Chair of the Board of Health
“I am honoured to have worked with the Cecil Community Centre to open Toronto’s first new warming centre just in time for last week’s extreme cold weather. Thank you to all the residents who gave up their meeting, play and rehearsal space for the week to make room for those in great need.”
– Councillor Dianne Saxe (University-Rosedale)
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