Toronto considers ambitious housing plan for homeless people in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic

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Toronto is considering an ambitious new plan to tackle homelessness as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the problem.

In a draft report developed by the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration in collaboration with Centraide, city officials proposed a number of potential strategies to get people off the streets and keep them housed.

One of the main ideas suggested in the report is for the city to rent and buy old buildings and offices to be converted into permanent housing.

Other proposals include transforming existing emergency shelters into permanent housing units; rapid construction of modular housing; and building a stronger network of harm reduction and substance abuse resources.

The report doesn’t give an idea of ​​how much money would be needed to make the plan a reality, but Toronto MP Adam Vaughan says it would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Vaughan, an advocate for increased government spending on housing, acknowledges the price may bother residents worried about the tax increase, but says the end result would significantly reduce costs already allocated to treating symptoms of the disease. homelessness, as well as for the betterment of society as a whole.

“A homeless person is just a neighbor without a house. When you host them, they turn into neighbors, and none of us talk about our neighbors that way, ”Vaughan said.

“I appreciate the heavy price that downtown residents pay, but at the same time, we have a large population of people whose health risks should concern us all.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe, who has worked with Toronto’s homeless population for more than two decades, said the ASSS draft report does not respond to how it will address the complexities that will come. with the attempt to implement such changes.

Crowe called the suggestion to shut down the city’s Out of the Cold emergency shelter program without offering a “vague” alternative, and said the report offered no details on how the city might handle. the transition from the current system to the one envisaged. .

She also said that the lack of advocacy for minor changes that could be implemented immediately in the shelter system – such as eliminating bunk beds and ending cohabitation conditions – suggests that the report might not survive under scrutiny.

“It reads like a well-meaning report, but it looks like it wants to please everyone,” Crowe said.

At the height of the pandemic, the public health risks posed by homelessness prompted the city to start testing the main strategy put forward in the SSHA report: renting buildings to be used as temporary housing.

The move came after inner city settlements grew rapidly, due to COVID-19 outbreaks that swept through the city’s shelter system and pushed many homeless people outside.

Among all the leased properties, the most controversial were three buildings located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the city’s downtown core.

Although two of the three rented buildings in the area are now vacant, the remaining site – the Roehampton Hotel – has been the target of protests from some local residents.

A former homeless resident who lived in one of the now vacant buildings, Rob Dods said he understands the concerns of locals and points out that it was not only them who felt unsafe around the rented buildings .

Dods, who now lives in a subsidized building closer to the city center, said the problem lies in the fact that the homeless are often painted with a single brush and housed together in one space without considering their needs. individual or their potential for conflict.

“Staying in shelters is no fun,” Dods said. “There are a lot of mental health issues, addiction issues, aggression. It’s not anyone’s fault, but it gets complicated when everyone is put together like this.

Crowe and Vaughan agree, arguing that a successful strategy in the fight against homelessness will be one that expands affordable housing across the city, rather than centralizing it in a small handful of buildings.

Taking the current tension around the Roehampton Hotel as an example, the two said the town did not anticipate the backlash caused by hundreds of homeless people moving so rapidly from the town to the neighborhood, which could jeopardize future attempts to convert buildings into permanent housing.

“I think the city has opened the door for a dramatic increase in (conflict) because of their failures to provide support,” Crowe said. “It takes a lot of on-site support to keep things calm.”

The city confirmed that the final version of the SSHA report will be presented to the Planning and Housing Committee on September 22.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 7, 2020.

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