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Inside Toronto’s Homelessness Crisis

As Toronto's wealth skyrockets, the city's most vulnerable populations are being punished. A look inside the homelessness crisis in Canada's biggest metropolis.

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Homelessness in TorontoPhoto: Ian Willms

A broken system

The Rosedale Valley is a ribbon of calm winding through the bustling centre of Toronto, a natural buffer of Manitoba maples and Japanese knotweed separating the mansions of South Rosedale from the crowded towers of St. James Town. It’s also one of the few places downtown where someone can set up camp, just minutes from churches that serve hot meals, without fear of being moved along by city workers or police.

On a grey and rainy afternoon late last fall, Greg Cook headed toward the ravine on one of his regular walks. He’s a 39-year-old outreach worker at Sanctuary, a Christian charity run out of an old church near Yonge and Bloor streets that hosts daytime drop-ins and community meals for the homeless. Cook has worked with Toronto’s homeless for more than a decade, handing out sleeping bags and socks and trying to find people space in shelters. Sometimes he just goes out to talk, showing a friendly face to people who are often ignored.

The valley felt secluded, the only noise the distant whoosh of commuters driving past. There were encampments beneath every overpass—mattresses and garbage bags of possessions next to small firepits, a wheelchair sitting stranded in the mud.

People have always camped in the ravines, but there are more doing so now than ever before. One night in April 2018, city staff roamed Toronto’s ravines, parks and underpasses and counted 533 people sleeping outside.

Several years ago, the city created the position of “parks ambassador,” a security guard–meets–social worker who patrols encampments and directs the homeless to housing programs. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of encampments removed by the city doubled, and last year another full-time ambassador and four seasonal employees were hired to manage the growing population. In the summer, workers cleared out the area under the Gardiner Expressway every few weeks, removing the couches, tents and chairs that made up the camps. Each time, after a few days, the occupants returned and started over.

This past March, the city allowed a temporary fine-dining pop-up to set up in the space after the city cleared out the encampments, preventing homeless people from returning to the spot, which resulted in protests from anti-­poverty activists.

For a segment of the population, it has always been tough to make a living and pay rent in Toronto, but the vast majority were able to get by. Now, however, Cook is seeing people who once sailed through the system getting tripped up. The people in the ravine, sleeping just a few hundred metres away from one of the richest neighbourhoods in the country, are the most visible examples of a broken housing system.

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Sabrina, 42, sleeps under a TTC tunnel in the Rosedale Valley ravinePhoto: Ian Willms

Overflowing shelters

A homelessness crisis is not like a forest fire or a tornado—a disaster with a clear starting point and a logical solution. It’s closer to climate change, a gradual accretion of conditions that becomes a catastrophe before anyone is willing to acknowledge it.

Toronto is experiencing the effects of multiple trends coming to a head. Years of underinvestment in social housing from all levels of government have left the city with a 100,000-person waiting list. Soaring rental prices have far outstripped increases in wages or government support, putting enormous pressure on anyone trying to find an affordable place to live. And in the last two years, an already-overcrowded shelter system has been forced to absorb a surge of refugee claimants and people affected by the opioid epidemic.

Those factors have combined to create a catastrophe. From 2016 to late 2018, the average number of people using the city’s emergency shelters on any given night leaped 60 per cent, to more than 6,600. Toronto has 63 shelters, 10 managed by the city itself and 53 operated in partnership with community agencies like the Salvation Army. Across such a vast ecosystem, conditions vary widely. The best are clean, small and run by caring professionals. The worst are hellish, bedbug-infested warehouses.

When shelters are full, the city rents rooms for people in hotels and motels, at considerable expense. Each winter, out-of-the-cold programs staffed by volunteers from faith-based communities offer hot meals and places to stay in a rotating series of church basements and synagogues. And in recent years, the city has offered a catalogue of not-quite-shelters: “warming centres” are little more than rooms with chairs and snacks and are typically open during the coldest weather; “24-hour respite sites” are where anyone can find a cot or a mat on the floor; and two 24-hour “drop-ins” are open to women only.

Unlike shelters, which have rules such as curfews, the new facilities are designed to be as open and unstructured as possible. They’re supposed to appeal to vulnerable people who can’t or won’t go to shelters, whether because they have pets, they’ve been banned, or they simply don’t feel safe or comfortable in an institutional environment. The pseudo-shelters were meant to be last resorts for someone to come in, warm up and head on their way. But what began as a temporary overflow solution has since become the only housing option in the city for many Torontonians.

At Sistering, a 24-hour women’s drop-in near Bloor and Dovercourt, capacity is 50, but on many nights up to 70 women compete for space. Staff hold a lottery twice a day to see who will get to sleep in one of the centre’s 12 reclining chairs. The rest of the women get thin gym mats and sleep under tables in the dining room, slouched on couches or bundled in blankets on the deck outside.

Police bring women escaping abuse to Sistering when the other women’s shelters are full. Hospitals discharge patients there when there’s no other place to send them. One woman came to Sistering after being evicted from her home in Oshawa. She spent her 78th birthday sleeping on three hard-backed chairs pushed together. She was still there recently, for her 80th. Officials at the city regularly tell Patricia O’Connell, the centre’s executive director, that she’s over capacity and can’t take in any more women. “I say, ‘You tell me where I can send them and I’ll do that,’” says O’Connell.

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Arya, 31, has been in the shelter system since 2017Photo: Ian Willms

“What am I supposed to do?”

In 2017, Arya, a 31-year-old hospital administrator from Scarborough, was living in her own apartment. She had always suffered from depression, but suddenly, for reasons she couldn’t name, it became unbearable. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even come out of my room,” she says. She couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone, especially not her family. She stopped working. Then she stopped paying rent. Eventually her landlord asked her to leave.

With nowhere to turn, Arya called around to shelters and found Elisa House, a squat red-brick building that sleeps 40 women. She shared a room with three of them, each with her own troubles. One of them stayed up all night on her phone. Another talked in her sleep, muttering awful things in the dark. Arya was determined to improve her mental health, to work with a therapist and get her old life back. But during that first week in the shelter, she barely slept, which only exacerbated her depression and anxiety. The longer she was there, the further away she felt from any kind of normalcy.

Frontline workers say that Arya’s situation is all too common: shelters are intended to be temporary stops to help people get back on their feet, but more and more people are getting stuck there. The Streets Needs Assessment, a survey of Toronto’s homeless conducted by the city and released last November, found that almost half of respondents had been without housing for over six months. Thirty-six per cent had been homeless for more than a year.

That trend has a lot to do with rising rents. Finding an apartment in Toronto is a Herculean task, even for people with good jobs; for the unemployed, it’s nearly impossible. The average monthly rent for a studio apartment is $1,640, according to the research firm Urbanation. To keep housing costs below 30 per cent of income—the threshold for affordability—a tenant has to earn over $65,600 a year. Put another way, a minimum-wage earner would need to work at least 97 hours a week to cover rent. For a single person collecting $733 a month on welfare, affordable, livable apartments simply don’t exist. With vacancies at 1.1 per cent, landlords have their pick of tenants, and someone coming out of homelessness will rarely make the top of the list.

Arya isn’t her real name. She worries that prospective employers won’t hire her if they know she’s homeless. Today she’s on long-term disability, and most of the other women at Elisa House are likewise on some form of government assistance. As of this past Christmas, she had been at the shelter for 15 months.

Recently, Arya broke down during a visit to her family doctor. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked him in tears. He had no answers for her. She put the same question to a housing adviser at a shelter called Women’s Habitat. “She told me there are no apartments available to me because of how low my income is. She just apologized and said, ‘I don’t have any good news for you.’”

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Roger, 60, sleeps beneath an east-end bridge and uses shelters occasionally Photo: Ian Willms

In search of a better life

In the fall of 2016, in the midst of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and threats of a travel ban, a stream of people in the United States began crossing the border into Canada seeking asylum. Toronto operates seven shelters dedicated to refugees, and those were quickly overrun. Typically, when that happens, the city rents hotel and motel rooms to accommodate the overflow, expanding and contracting as necessary. But the refugee claimants kept coming, and by late 2018, the hotel program had gone from 370 spots to 2,668.

The influx has strained the city’s resources—the cost of housing refugees exceeded $67 million for 2017–18 alone. Mayor John Tory pressed the federal and provincial governments for help. “The city can’t do this alone,” he said in the fall. The Trudeau government has so far pledged $26 million in assist­ance, but that’s not enough. In 2016, refugee claimants made up just 11 per cent of the total number of people in the Toronto shelter system. In 2018, they constituted nearly 40 per cent.

Refugees aren’t the cause of Toronto’s shelter crisis, but they’ve added stress to an already overburdened, underfunded system. And once refugees are in the system, they face the same housing problems as everyone else: there’s nowhere for them to go. Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI, the settlement organization embedded at the Radisson Hotel, worked with government-sponsored Syrian refugees in 2015. Back then, it took housing workers an average of five and a half weeks to move families from temporary shelter into permanent housing. Four years later, he says, it takes four and a half months, and the search stretches to all corners of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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Stacie, 31, was living under the Gardiner before the encampments were cleared outPhoto: Ian Willms

What about funding?

Ask people the reason why they’re homeless, and most trace their situation back to the moment their back went out, the day they were evicted, the depression that set in after a loved one died. People talk about domestic abuse, struggles with mental health and addiction. For any individual, homelessness feels like the result of personal tragedy or personal failure, bad decisions or even just bad luck. But misfortune and depression aren’t new; mass homelessness is. It’s not a fact of nature or the logical consequence of a growing population but a modern phenomenon—the result of economic changes and political decisions made within our lifetimes.

The crisis was entirely preventable. Between 1965 and 1995, an average of 3,900 units of social housing were built each year in what’s now the GTA. One of every eight new houses or apartments was subsidized. In 1993, the federal government cut funding for the provincial and municipal NGOs that built this housing. The Chrétien Liberals delegated responsibility for overseeing and maintaining existing social housing to the provinces, and Mike Harris’s Ontario Conservatives passed those responsibilities on to the muni­cipalities. In 1997, for the first time in nearly 50 years, no social housing was built in the province.

In the years since, some new social-­housing programs have emerged, but only at a fraction of the scale of what was once developed. Today, on average, 500 units of social housing are built in Toronto each year.

There are three ways to address homelessness, says Stephen Gaetz, a professor at York University and the president of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. You can try to prevent it, help people move out of it or provide a temporary emergency response. Toronto has overwhelmingly focused on the latter option, says Gaetz, much to its detriment.

Research from the At Home/Chez Soi project, a massive nationwide research study funded by the federal government, found that the average cost of supporting a homeless person with mental illness for a year in Toronto using traditional shelters was approxi­mately $59,000. The cost of providing affordable housing to a person with similarly high needs, by contrast, was just $21,089 a year. The situation we’re in now isn’t just a moral failing but a financial one, too.

The people who work with the homeless know all of this. The problem is both desperately complicated and intractable, and something that just about everyone believes has a straightforward solution: more money for more affordable housing.

But after decades of neglect, Toronto is now at the point where a few investments around the edges won’t prevent more people from falling into homelessness, let alone put a dent in the affordable-housing waiting list. The unappealing truth is that keeping people out of the respites and ravines will require massive investments from all levels of government.

On a frigid Tuesday last November, construction workers in a parking lot in Liberty Village, on the western edge of downtown, were smoothing the foundation of a new structure. Along the street, stylish young office workers walked by on their lunch breaks, barely glancing over at the dome quickly taking shape. The enormous tent is one of three tempor­ary structures being added to neighbourhoods across the city’s downtown core that will act as respite centres this year. Built by the Calgary-based company Sprung Instant Structures, each costs $2.5 million and accommodates 100 people.

In many ways, the domes are a creative response to an overwhelming need, a quick way to provide emergency shelter to the growing number of people who desperately need it. They also mark a depressing new era in the city’s approach to homelessness. A windowless tent in a downtown parking lot is a band-aid on a band-aid on a band-aid. The enormous structures are the kind of thing typically used following a natural disaster—something sudden that people survive—rather than something that can be prevented.

Four days later, across town, Greg Cook and a crowd of 50 or so gathered at the Church of the Holy Trinity for a monthly memorial service dedicated to the people who have died as a result of homelessness. “We meet each month for two reasons,” said Cook to the group. “The first is to remember and grieve and celebrate those who die without housing here in Toronto. We also meet here to say it isn’t okay that this keeps happening.”

Huddled against the wind, candles in hand, the mourners stood before Cook, who asked for a moment of silence to honour Ron Graham, the latest person who had died on the streets of Toronto. Graham was a former horse trainer from Cape Breton—a tough, wiry guy with a sharp wit. His name was the latest on a list now over 900 names long.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada