Toronto’s winter months amplify the unsafe living conditions faced by the city’s homeless population, many of whom are forced to brave a night without shelter or warmth. In a recent article by the Toronto Star, workers at St. Michael’s hospital reported a rise in cold-related injuries including frostbite, painful foot infections, and life-threatening hypothermia amongst those living out in the streets..
With the shelter system nearing capacity and facing staffing issues, those left on the streets are forced to seek alternative shelter arrangements. Shuttle buses, heating vents, and subway stations are some of the many popular spots the unhoused go when they are met with little support from the city.
In an effort to mitigate the dangers brought by the frigid winter season, the City of Toronto enacted a winter plan. In a news release on Oct. 22, 2021, the city said that its winter plan involved the expansion of shelter space to accommodate 200 additional residents.
However, outreach workers such as Lorraine Lam believe that the city is cutting corners when it comes to accommodating the influx of shelter residents. In one scenario, Lam describes how outreach workers were unable to find the nearly 50 new beds that the city promised following the fatal death of an unhoused individual at a shelter.
“A lot of my colleagues were trying to figure out where [they were]. Nobody seemed to know,” said Lam. After speaking to a friend of hers who worked at the shelter, Lam said she discovered no new spaces were made available at the shelter. Instead, the shelter director was given direction to add more spaces on a COVID positive floor.
“To me, that’s a really terrifying way of cutting corners, to say that we’ve added new space but actually we didn’t put in new spaces, we just shoved in new spots – to avoid COVID protocols,” said Lam.
While it is difficult for some to find shelter, for many current residents the threat of being kicked out is also a prevalent fear. In a video posted by The Shelter Video Project, Lisa LeBlanc, a former shelter resident, said she was kicked out of the shelter after complaining about food to another resident.
Echoing this statement, Lam said shelter residents are often discharged for arbitrary reasons.
“You know, sometimes [residents are discharged] because there’s been a physical altercation, whether it’s between residents or between staff. Sometimes the person missed curfew,” said Lam. “But I think what’s been clear is sometimes they get a little arbitrary.”
At Kennedy Youth Shelter, those who have the ability to discharge residents at shelters are caseworkers.
“It’s a case by case,” said Mark Stothert, a supervisor at Kennedy House Youth Shelter. “Every worker makes their own decisions. The supervisor has a bit more say but our caseworkers can discharge if they want to. It could just be for something simple. The repeat offenders can get discharged. That’s just the way it is.”
This is part three of The Unhoused and The Unprepared, a six-part series where we dive into Toronto’s homelessness and housing crisis. Listen to the rest of the interviews and the third episode of The Unhoused and The Unprepared series: The Winter Plan: