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Toronto warming centres ‘at capacity’ amid extreme cold, advocates warn as city scrambles to add spaces

Homelessness advocates say Toronto’s warming centres are full and are calling for more to be done, while the city scrambles to add more spaces amid an extreme cold warning.

As a blast of Arctic sent Toronto into a deep freeze, making it feel as cold as -30 C, several homelessness advocates reported some if not all of Toronto’s warming centres were at capacity.

It’s a situation many say demands urgent action from all levels of government, including the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which said Friday that people experiencing homelessness routinely experience “systemic discrimination.”

“Governments at all levels must work to limit the ongoing effects of this discrimination. Keeping members of our community from freezing to death on the streets is part of that essential work.”

The commission also cited a recent Ontario Superior Court decision denying the municipality of Waterloo’s request to remove an encampment when adequate shelter space wasn’t available, saying programs to support the homeless must be grounded in human rights-based approaches and delivered with respect and compassion.”

As of Friday morning the Cecil Community Centre, near Toronto’s Kensington Market, was at capacity, according to its executive director, Danny Anckle. Cecil is one of two downtown warming centres, the other being at Metro Hall. The city also has two other warming sites set up in North York and Scarborough.

WATCH | This community centre is working to get people out of extreme cold:

toronto warming centres at capacity amid extreme cold advocates warn as city scrambles to add spaces

Toronto community centre works to get people out of extreme cold

8 hours ago

Duration 6:51

Toronto’s Cecil Community Centre is pivoting to provide a warm place to sleep for vulnerable people as the temperature plummets, says executive director Daniel Anckle.

Anckle said the centre, which has 30 cots physically distanced, was out of spots even before the temperatures plummeted.

“All of them are occupied. We’ve been full since we opened on Monday, we’ve been at capacity. And we’ve had people show up after we’ve been full wanting a bed so that’s been a challenge for us.”

‘It’s heartbreaking,’ says outreach worker

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker and a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, was among those who warned the centres were at capacity and said images of people sleeping on the street in the frigid temps should be a signal to all about how dire the situation is.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “In the work that I do, there’s always this reality in the back of my mind that whenever my phone rings, it might be somebody that I know who’s frozen to death,” she said.

Lorraine Lam is an an outreach worker and a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, and was among those who warned the centres were at capacity.
Lorraine Lam is an an outreach worker and a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, and was among those who warned the centres were at capacity. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

CBC Toronto asked the city to comment on whether any or all of its warming centres were full Friday, but the city did not provide direct confirmation.

A spokesperson replied in an emailed statement that the city has “directed all programs across Toronto’s emergency shelter system not to turn anyone away from shelters or warming centres during the extreme cold.”

“As always, the City’s top priority is supporting our most vulnerable residents.” 

The statement added the city has added 432 additional spaces to the shelter system, which were available for use Thursday night. That’s in addition to the 9,000 shelter spaces at more than 100 shelters city-wide, it said.

The city says the extra spaces were created by expanding warming centre capacity from 142 spaces to 195 spaces, and opening 237 temporary contingency spaces at various sites where space allowed, such as common areas. 

While homelessness in Toronto isn’t new, Lam says more and more people are finding themselves unhoused every year — a problem she said has been worsened by underfunding and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’re not going to be able to police our way out of homelessness so we actually need to see solutions in terms of root causes right now,” she said. “The solution for homelessness is housing.”

Until that housing is available, she said, the city needs to open more warming centres, drop-ins and respites.

‘We need an emergency response,’ city councillor says

Coun Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Parkdale, told CBC News all three levels of government need to do more, saying decades of inaction have contributed to a social safety net that’s “full of holes.”

“We need an emergency response to this and a significant investment from all three governments right away,” he said.

“The population in the City of Toronto of people without homes has way overrun our capacity to provide shelters, even our capacity to provide temporary drop-in centres.” 

Perks said he and others with Toronto’s board of health have been advocating for the expansion of the shelter system and warming centres to make them a 24/7 measure. A proposal on that goes to city council next week.

“Everyone in Toronto deserves, needs and should have a warm place to go, even when the temperatures are above freezing. There is plenty of evidence that there are health consequences at any temperature if you have a protracted time in your life without a home,” he said. 

The city says that as of 4 a.m., there remained capacity in the shelter system and that staff worked with clients at centres where demand was higher to help them find accommodation elsewhere in the system. 

The city’s Streets to Homes program also dispatched extra 24/7 teams to connect with those living outside “to encourage them to come indoors,” it said. 

Toronto remains under an extreme cold warning with wind chill values near -30 expected into Saturday morning. 

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