Housing advocates gathered in downtown Toronto Saturday afternoon to rally for some vacant properties in the city to be developed into affordable social housing.

Dozens of protesters marched from Allan Gardens to Dundas and Sherbourne streets, the site of housing units that are currently sitting empty.

The rally was organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) who is advocating for the vacant lots to be turned into rent-geared-to-income social housing.

“We have people living in the parks because they don’t feel safe going into the shelters,” OCAP member Lesley Wood told CP24 during the rally. “We have had no COVID cases in the encampments but there are COVID cases in the shelters.”

“I understand why people don’t want to go into the shelters right now. Long-term housing strategy requires both good quality shelters and affordable housing and we need to do both,” she added.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, more homeless encampments have popped up around the city with many of these residents claiming that they’re more at risk of getting infected by the virus at city-run shelters.

Meanwhile, the city 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 to encourage physical distancing in its shelters.

At the same time, it created 2,200 new spaces by opening up 25 temporary shelter sites, including 19 in hotels.

This winter, the city is also planning to operate 560 new temporary spaces for the homeless, including 240 beds in hotel-based programs.

But instead of forcing people out of their encampments and into city shelters, OCAP argues that the units on Sherbourne street, which they say have been empty for almost 11 years, could help provide affordable housing for people in need.

In July 2019, OCAP and other organizations submitted a proposal to the city showing how 150 to 260 units of publicly-owned rent-geared-to-income housing could be built at the Sherbourne street site.

City council agreed to begin negotiations on obtaining the property in December 2019 but OCAP said they haven’t heard about any updates since then.

“This week the courts said that people in encampments are going to be cleared and we’re really deeply concerned about where the city is,” Wood said.

Earlier this week, Toronto Mayor John Tory announced the city’s first modular supportive housing project.

The project will create 250 modular homes built on city-owned lands, including 11 in Scarborough.

Phase 1 is slated to be ready for occupancy by the end of the year and Phase 2 is expected to be completed next year.

But OCAP members said there needs to be a strong supply of affordable housing everywhere in the city.

“Putting people out in Scarborough takes them away from their community, away from the services that serve them and we need to make sure that there’s affordable housing across the city, including in downtown,” Wood said.