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COVID-19 is taking a heavy toll on Toronto’s homeless

There is an urgent need to address the fundamental lack of community housing initiatives in Toronto

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Over 9,200 people in the city of Toronto meet one of the definitions of homelessness. Photo by Terry Ozon/Flickr.

The following is an excerpt from “Cooperative Funding: An Evaluation of Sustainability and Economic Vulnerability in Toronto,” a report which was recently presented to the Spadina Fort-York ONDP Riding Association. The paper aims to address the fundamental lack of community housing initiatives in Toronto, and suggest alternatives.


As stated by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), the term ‘homelessness’ officially “[describes] the situation of an individual, family or community without stable, safe, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it. It is the result of systemic or societal barriers, a lack of affordable and appropriate housing, the individual/household’s financial, mental, cognitive, behavioural or physical challenges, and/or racism and discrimination.”

This definition encompasses a range of living situations, which can include 1) Unsheltered living, which refers to a situation of absolute homeless, and living in public or private spaces that are either unintended for permanent human habitation; 2) Emergency sheltered living, which refers to an often temporary place of shelter, including overnight shelters, women’s shelters, and interval houses; 3) Provisionally accommodated living, in a situation of indefinite accommodation and temporary stability, such as with interim housing, rental accommodations, refugee situations, or non-permanent housing scenarios; and 4) In risk of homelessness, where the individual is not yet defined as ‘homeless,’ however their present socio-economic state and condition of living is precarious, and does not meet provincial public health and safety guidelines.

The Fred Victor organization determined that on any given day, over 9,200 people in the city of Toronto meet one of the definitions of homelessness. Shelters in the city generally reach an average occupancy rate of approximately 98 percent every night, and 76 percent of the homeless population claim that the key factor in improving their situation is “aid and accommodation in paying the high rents of the city.”

When looking at occupancy, and the quantity of homeless shelters in the city in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been reported that, as of August 7, more than 7,000 homeless individuals occupy shelters in Toronto. The capacity potential for these shelters was under 5,000 before the pandemic. As stated in a personal interview conducted with Canadian homeless advocate and ‘street nurse’ Cathy Crowe, “Homeless people have been last when it has come to federal, provincial, municipal strategies and with respect to COVID-19.”

Crowe spoke about the conditions that homeless people are facing during the pandemic, and the exclusion that is jeopardizing their safety:

It was practically impossible for mass-testing to occur in homeless shelters before. There was a lot of finger-pointing between the city and the province, but they just never resolved it. It was really only around September 11 [2020] that the city mask bylaw, which did not apply to shelters and homeless people, included homeless people as well. They were then provided masks and required to wear them, but everything that we have been hearing about washing our hands and socially distancing had not been made possible for this large population of people. Workers in shelters had to wear masks but homeless people could not.


Despite Toronto adding 2,500 beds to its emergency infrastructure since 2016, the Toronto shelter system remains at or over its capacity more often than it is able to sustain. A member motion put forward in 2018 by Toronto city council members Joe Cressy and Kristyn Wong-Tam set a target of 1,800 supportive housing units to be built each year for the next decade, in an effort to combat the epidemic of homelessness in the city.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe says the city is not doing a good job of providing adequate shelter for the homeless.

As of November 2019, 1,278 units were expected to be built for 2019, 2020, and 2021 combined. This falls incredibly short of the original target of 1,800 units per year. It is important to note that increasing the volume of supportive housing units in Toronto can also involve using facilities that are pre-existing, such as unoccupied community housing units or private rentable units with an addition of government subsidies to promote support. Something similar was done in British Columbia, where non-profit housing providers operate both isolated housing units and single-room-occupancy hotels to provide non-clinical connections to primary health care and substance use services for vulnerable citizens of the province, including those who are homeless or at risk of becoming so.

The lack of follow through with this initiative of building 1,800 new units of supportive housing was pointed out by both Cathy Crowe and Richard Dunwoody, a businessman who started a program called Project Comfort to contribute to improving the situation of those experiencing homelessness in Toronto. According to Dunwoody:

The Open Door Affordable Housing Program was launched in 2016, and the City announced that it was going to build a few hundred modular housing units, but there has been no follow through. It is now 2020 and Toronto is only now willing to build them. Where was this initiative before the pandemic? It’s only now that there is pressure to build homes to help about two hundred people in ten years.
Greater than 80 percent of the revenue of homeless shelters is provided by the city. If funding or revenue stops or is negated, these shelters cannot survive. Shelters are not at arm’s length and they are no longer independent. We have no institutionalized compassion, and we have created so many rules and guidelines that there is no room for empathy.


As described by the Ontario Community Housing Renewal Strategy, community housing is vital to the ecosystem of a city. In the province of Ontario, almost 20 percent of purpose-built rental housing is community housing. Community housing can be defined as “housing owned and operated by non-profit housing corporations, housing co-operatives and municipal governments or district social services administration boards. These providers offer subsidized or low-end-of market rents—housing sometimes referred to as social housing and affordable housing.”

Social housing has been developed through federal or provincial government programs since the 1950s. Over 250,000 households live in social housing, and about 185,000 pay a rent based on their income while the remainder pay a moderate market rent.

The main problem with cooperatives is that a lot of housing stock either needs significant repairs, and have been taken out of use because of poor conditions, or face the issue of financial uncertainty when continuing to offer cooperative housing after the original time-frame and obligations of their program ends. There is a lack of coordination and communication between the community housing system and other accessible housing systems. Support services for tenants are often either unavailable or insufficient. The overall process needs to be streamlined, and more opportunities need to be consistently generated while non-profit, cooperative, and municipal rental supply needs to be dramatically increased.

Adequate opportunities that fit the needs of the individuals being housed is also invaluable. Firm partnerships, and private market landlords are often important to this cause. Rent supplement agreements organized with these landlords aid in providing ongoing access to affordable units for households on social housing waiting lists, or individuals in need of supportive housing.

The final research report published by the Social Economy Suite program at the University of Saskatchewan and its Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, summed up the intentions of cooperative housing especially well:

Cooperatives are the dominant organizational form, but not-for-profit associations and social enterprises are significant players as well. Social economy organizations have built and strengthened rural and remote communities, and have contributed important services in urban centres. Traditionally marginalized communities have found inclusion through social economy—organizations focused on the disability community, newcomers and others often disadvantaged in the employment market.


Overall, what has been found is that there are not enough alternative solutions, nor a sufficient amount of incentives for stakeholders in order to begin improving the living conditions of vulnerable people in Toronto.

Programs similar to the initiatives outlined in this report, and the usage of existing buildings, can only aid in making sheltering all of the vulnerable people in Ontario a more realistic goal, and at a more affordable cost than the alternative. But as stated by Richard Dunwoody, “One must remedy and address individual issues—deconstruct and work to solve them. You must be involved in discussions but that is not a solution, that is a statement. Outside of proposals, initiatives must show genuine results.”

Fatima Shrafat is a student at the University of Ottawa who specializes in housing research with a focus on social and economic disadvantage.

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