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Even harder to be homeless


As the grim realities of an aggressive and novel virus crept through the streets of Toronto this past winter, threatening untold chaos for its citizens and for its homeless population in particular, Ruth Crammond and her team at United Way Greater Toronto knew only to breathe, to refocus and to pick up the phone.

“In the early days we were on calls with our community agency partners around the clock to try to get a sense of what some of the predominant issues were,” says the agency’s vice-president of community investment and development.

With many shelters across the GTA reducing their bed capacity by up to 50 per cent, as well as the closure of many drop-in spaces and donation sites, the challenges were numerous — including the large number of seniors and individuals with complex health needs in the shelter system, and the sudden inability of many individuals to safely access washrooms, showers, meals and safe-injection sites.

“What’s difficult for the rest of us to understand is the incredible energy and resourcefulness that it takes to manage every day when you’re homeless,” says Crammond. “Figuring out where your next meal is coming from, where you’re going to use the washroom, where you will safely store (your) belongings … In these current circumstances that are difficult for any of us, all of those questions and survival tactics just become that much more challenging.”

It was with these pressing considerations in mind that Crammond and her team decided their next phone call would be to the City of Toronto.

“We knew that the government was going to take the obvious lead and would be critical to addressing the pandemic,” she says. “But we approached our local governments to say the community service sector was going to be just as critical in both managing the spread and providing the emergency services required to do so. We said, ‘You need to leverage us and not try to go it alone.’ And we were so grateful that they said, ‘You’re so right.’”

A partnership between the United Way and the City of Toronto then took rapid shape, resulting in the creation of a diverse and collaborative task force. Key homeless-sector stakeholders as well as community providers, Indigenous communities, health-sector partners, regional municipal partners and the public were engaged to develop the next phase of a COVID-19 response for the shelter system in Toronto.

“Within days of the task force being formed, people were already on the ground,” says Crammond, adding that the same process was replicated in York Region and Peel Region. “They were starting to learn in real time so quickly what they could do when they worked together.”

Steve Teekens, executive director of Na-Me-Res or Native Men’s Residence, an emergency shelter and social programming initiative for Indigenous men in Toronto, says that involving his community in consultations on homelessness had always been crucial, but perhaps more so than ever before.

“I’ve worked in homelessness since 1995 and I’ve never seen this degree of visible homelessness, ever,” he says, adding that beds in the Na-Me-Res shelter had to be reduced from 71 to 35 to adhere to social distancing rules.

“Given that Indigenous homelessness is disproportionate in most urban centres across Canada, it is very important to include Indigenous people in crafting these types of emergency responses,” he says. “We have unique solutions and offer different perspectives.”

These perspectives, he explains, were given voice at the virtual meetings, discussions and surveys that served to inform the COVID-19 Shelter Interim Recovery Strategy — a co-ordinated response to homelessness that includes specific and community-led plans for addressing the unique challenges of the community’s Black and Indigenous homeless populations.

A report subsequently released in September further helped to inform the city’s COVID-19 Housing and Homelessness Recovery Response Plan and led to an urgent appeal to the federal and provincial governments to, among other requests, create 3,000 permanent, affordable homes within the following 24 months for homeless, vulnerable and marginalized residents.

“What ensued was all levels of government coming forward,” says Crammond. “It was a moment to actually create housing opportunities and to deepen the collaboration of a community to support people who are homeless and moving into housing.”

Plans were immediately set in motion to develop and act on acquisition strategies for hotels, rooming houses and other buildings, such as empty office spaces and residential buildings, and to strategically search for spaces that could offer blended opportunities for private space, as well as shared spaces for clients to have connections to the community.

“We’ve got 2,000 people now that have moved into individual private rooms,” says Mary-Anne Bédard, general manager of the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support & Housing Administration. “We’ve heard significant feedback about how important that has been for people to feel a greater degree of safety, of dignity and of privacy and how it’s enabled many of them to settle themselves and to refocus on what’s next.”

Bédard says this 50 per cent increase in housing placement since the same period last year is a testament to community agencies and other partners joining forces — and not simply accepting homelessness as a reality, but actively working to end its cycles.

“We know that if we can make the experience of homelessness less traumatizing, people will likely experience it for less time and with less long-term consequences,” she says.

Bédard adds that these accomplishments would not have been possible without the level of community collaboration that continues to take place and a pervasive willingness to remove every barrier that has been encountered.

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“The other thing that’s been crucial to driving these initiatives forward is that the United Way is the United Way of Greater Toronto,’” she says.

“So that ability to take a regional approach and the incredibly large audience that they have has created huge opportunities for us to communicate, to create understanding and to build empathy for the issues that we’re dealing with.”

If a silver lining can be found amidst the chaos of this year’s circumstances, Bédard says it has been the stark light that the pandemic has shone on profound and long-standing inequities in Toronto and its surrounding communities — and the rapid realization of solutions as a result.

“Through this work we’ve been able to identify the importance of housing as the solution to homelessness. And we’ve been able to make the pivot from simply building a larger shelter system to actually building a larger supportive housing system,” says Bédard.

“I think that it will change the way we work, it will change the way that we do business and it will change what we have thought of as the quick and easy solution to homelessness, which is just to build another shelter. That doesn’t solve any problems, it just puts you in a holding pattern.”

Recommended actions:

United Way Greater Toronto and the City of Toronto’s COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy Report was informed by the collective expertise of key homeless-sector stakeholders and lessons learned from the first phase of the pandemic to develop solutions to prevent and end homelessness. The report’s recommendations include:

  • Investing in housing and supports to decrease the volume and duration of need for emergency shelter
  • Deepening collaboration and coordination with health partners
  • Shifting the way we shelter people to provide dignified, COVID-safe options
  • Minimizing the flow of people into traditional emergency shelters

  • Actions to address homelessness in the Black and Indigenous communities





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