Toronto says no to immediate 24/7 warming centres, but will study the idea further
Published Wednesday, February 8, 2023 8:20AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 8, 2023 2:08PM EST
Toronto City Council has rejected the idea of immediately implementing 24/7 warming centres and declaring homelessness a public health crisis, but has asked city staff to look at the feasibility of keeping the spaces open 24/7 during the winter months and to report back.
Staff are expected to submit their report on April 25, which means possible changes to the city's warming centre network won't come into effect until next winter season.
The vote followed a passionate debate at Toronto City Hall on a recommendation by Toronto’s Board of Health to provide 24/7 indoor warming locations through April 15 in order to provide people walk-in access to a safe place to spend the night.
At its Jan. 16 meeting, the Toronto Board of Health also recommended that council declare a public health crisis in the city based on “systemic failure of all three levels of government to provide adequate 2- hour drop-in and respite indoor spaces.”
After hours of debate Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, council finally adopted an amendment by Coun. Michael Thompson which essentially deleted the text of the original motion. It instead called on the provincial government to require all large municipalities in Ontario to provide shelter space proportionate to their population and for the federal government to provide funding for refugees seeking emergency shelter in Toronto.
Thompson said his motion reflects the fact that the city can never add enough space in shelters and warming centres because people experiencing homelessness come to Toronto from elsewhere due to better services for the homeless in this city. He said the federal government also fails to do its part because it allows refugee claimants into the country, but leaves it to cities to take care of them without providing financial support.
He said he did not see the point in declaring a crisis if the city does not have the means to do anything about it.
A number of councillors pushed back, saying action was quickly taken to add police patrols on the TTC recently, though there was no dedicated funding for it.
That sentiment was echoed by a number of advocates for the homeless who were closely watching the vote.
Dr. Naheed Dosani called the decision “disgusting.”
“Never forget that the City of Toronto had more than enough resources to add an extra $50,000,000 to the police budget...but today...said it doesn't have enough resources to protect our community's most vulnerable. Never forget,” Dosani wrote in a tweet.
Still, council did approve other motions to action, including one from Coun. Dianne Saxe that each councillor identify an available location in their ward for a warming centre or respite centre that can be opened this winter, subject to budget approval and availability of staffing.
A motion from Coun. Mike Colle asking that the city reach out to faith leaders to explore using available space in churches, mosques, gurdwaras, temples, and synagogues as warming centres also passed.
There are currently only four warming centres in the city.
A number of groups and advocates raised concerns last week about the availability of adequate spaces for those experiencing homelessness amid a snap of frigid overnight temperatures that felt like the -30s with the wind chill.
While the city opened up more spaces at shelters and respite centers, at least two warming centres were operating at capacity, including one downtown, which had just recently been set up by staff at a community centre.
The city said nobody would be turned away during the extreme cold and shelter buses were spotted outside of a downtown intake centre. However, the situation highlighted the fact that those on the street find themselves in acute danger during bouts of cold weather in a city where the shelter system operates at full capacity most nights.
Toronto currently activates warming centres when an Extreme Cold Weather Alert is issued by the medical officer of health based on a forecast of -15 C or colder, or a wind chill of -20 or colder.
Speaking with CP24 Wednesday morning, Mayor John Tory said that while the city has opened warming centres even on days when the temperature didn’t meet that threshold, the answer to finding people proper shelter is ultimately housing rather than expanding emergency facilities.
“It sounds good until you get to the practical questions raised by our staff, which are ‘well can we staff these.’ I mean, can we literally find people to staff. Are the facilities where we have warming centres, like the rotunda at Metro Hall downtown, applicable or appropriate for 24 hour service, 24 hours a day all the time,” Tory said.
“And you know, even the medical officer of health has said the answer lies in what we're trying to do, which is not have more and more and more shelters and warming centres, but rather to have permanent sustainable supportive housing for people who are in need of that kind of support. So that's where my priority has been focused.”
Tory had said that he anticipated a “close” vote on the issue. He voted to support Thompson’s amendment which rejected immediate 24/7 warming centres.