An in-depth look at how the city’s most vulnerable live amongst its most affluent

Midtown shelters are at capacity and Out of the Cold programs are overflowing in North Toronto and Forest Hill, as advocates push for more emergency shelters


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The Out of the Cold program at Yonge and St. Clair

Individuals on the front line of Toronto’s fight against homelessness have asked the city to call it what it is: a crisis. Last month, the community development and recreation committee voted to declare a state of emergency, prompting city council to approve a $10.6 million plan to add hundreds of beds to the existing shelter system by the end of 2017. 

The move came weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $40 billion national housing strategy to build 100,000 social housing units and fund much-needed repairs to another 300,000 across Canada over the next decade. Most of the plan won’t come into effect until 2019. In the meantime, individuals living on the streets of Toronto remain at risk. 

The City of Toronto’s shelter system is at 96 per cent capacity, with 5,386 occupants and 5,585 shelters beds. Some of those shelter beds are located in Midtown at the Toronto Community Hostel near Dupont Street and Spadina Road, at Na-Me-Res men’s shelter near Bathurst Street and St. Clair Avenue West and at Eva’s Place near Leslie Street and York Mills Road.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam of Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale, said homelessness is no longer a problem confined to the back alleys of downtown Toronto.

“It is not as visible in Midtown but it exists everywhere. We have encampments in the ravines, under the bridges and in Rosedale Valley,” said Wong-Tam. “If people are not looking down at their phones or speeding by in a car, they will see people there.”

Elisheva Passarello spent her first night on the street in October 2012. Travelling on a bus late at night with nowhere to go and very little money, she eventually made her way to North York General Hospital to wait out what she said felt like the longest night of her life. 

The path to homelessness for Passarello was paved with pitfalls not uncommon to many others living on the streets of Toronto: she had suffered a history of abuse, was laid off from her job and later evicted, had health issues and no support system to lean on. As a result, her mental health was declining rapidly. 

“I had so many things happen all at once: loss of a relationship, loss of a house, loss of a job. And I felt like I was going to lose my mind,” she said. “Everything happened really, really quickly.” 

Before she knew it, she had gone from a four-bedroom home outside of the GTA to a homeless women’s shelter in Midtown. She has been living there since 2013. 

“We have drop-in facilities across the city that are not shelters, but they’re behaving like shelters because their clients have no place to go.”

After moving through the transitional stages at the shelter, Passarello now pays rent there and has begun to find her way out of the trenches. These days she speaks as an advocate for others and said she knows first-hand the toll the winter months can take on those living on the streets and in shelters. 

“Our human bodies need to feel safe, warm, and we need to have heathy food … [otherwise] you can’t function. I know what that feels like, to just feel like a zombie. You get depressed because you want to do more. You want to be more and you can’t,” said Passarello.

Many homeless people lack proper winter clothing, and Passarello said they often take shelter in local libraries or on public transit to escape the cold. 

At Toronto’s Board of Health on Oct. 30, medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said the city has witnessed 70 deaths of homeless people in 2017 as of Sept. 30.

Wong-Tam said that number is just the tip of the iceberg.

“We are going to see more deaths this winter if we don’t do something dramatic now,” she said. 

To combat the cold weather, the city previously opened five 24-hour drop-in warming centres across Toronto on Nov. 15, including one at 21 Park Rd. in Yorkville. The centres, also known as respite sites, will be funded by the city and run by not-for-profit organizations until April 2018.

Yorkville's new respite centre at 21 Park Rd.

Councillor Wong-Tam noted the centres are a band-aid solution.

“Our shelters are overflowing. We have drop-in facilities across the city that are not shelters, but they’re behaving like shelters because their clients have no place to go,” she said.

Out of the Cold facilities across Midtown are also heavily frequented by those in need. 

Joyce Rankin is the volunteer director of the Out of the Cold program at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church near Yonge and St. Clair. The program opened on Nov. 1 and runs until April 4, 2018, every Wednesday night from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. Rankin and 150 other volunteers provide supper and breakfast to overnight guests. The program accommodates 60 people per night, and Rankin said they are always at capacity. 

Rankin called Trudeau’s national housing strategy “too little, too late” and argued it won’t do anything to help those who are currently suffering. 

“The city and, quite frankly, all three levels of government are relying on the volunteer sector to do their work, ” said Rankin. “The Out of the Cold was meant to be a two-year strategy, and that was over 30 years ago.”

Passarello has also volunteered at Holy Blossom Temple’s Out of the Cold program in Forest Hill for the past three years, where more than a hundred homeless people often come for food and warmth. Yet only 45 can spend the night. 

The number of overnight stays at Out of the Cold across the city saw a nine per cent increase in demand over two years, from 12,125 recorded during the 2015/2016 season to 13,199 during 2016/2017.

“It’s a sign that there are all these extra people,” said Passarello. “And when the Out of the Cold ends, they don’t disappear. They’re just living on the street.” 

Wong-Tam noted the issue is not Toronto-specific as many homeless people come from outside the city.

“I’m hearing stories about shelters and drop-in facilities receiving clients from London, Hamilton, from Peel and York Region because they’re all told to come to Toronto because we have services,” she said.

The city has also introduced an online portal, Homeless Help, which maps out emergency services for homeless people across Toronto.

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