Toronto City Council approves changes to Warming Centre operations, urges provincial and federal governments to respond to homelessness emergency

2023 May 12

Today, Toronto City Council voted to support the expanded operation of Warming Centres and work to improve access to space and health services for people experiencing homelessness.

Along with these concrete actions to continue to respond to homelessness, City Council voted to declare homelessness an emergency and urge other orders of government to provide urgent assistance.

Council’s declaration of an emergency does not trigger the immediate flow of additional funds or resources from other orders of government. Toronto joins other Ontario municipalities, including Hamilton and Fort Erie, that have recently made similar declarations about homelessness crises affecting communities.

Council approved several staff recommended changes to winter services planning to support those experiencing homelessness, including changes to the criteria for activating Warming Centres and the creation of an Inter-Divisional and City Agency Working Group to identify public- and privately-owned locations for use as Warming Centres and 24-hour respite sites.

In 2022, the City provided shelter and support to more than 20,700 individuals, connected with people living outside more than 17,000 times and helped more than 4,300 individuals move from the shelter system into permanent housing.

Despite repeatedly adding capacity, demand continues to grow, and so too does the pressure faced by the shelter system. In 2016, the system included approximately 4,000 spaces; today, the City’s network can provide overnight emergency accommodation to approximately 9,000 people experiencing homelessness. The winter of 2023 alone saw the addition of 1,000 spaces created through expanded capacity in shelters, additional room in the refugee-specific system and new permanent affordable rental housing with supports.

With changes to Warming Centre activation criteria outlined in the staff report, beginning in the 2023/2024 winter season, Warming Centres will open when temperatures dip to -5 degrees Celsius and/or when Environment and Climate Change Canada issues freezing rain, snow squall, winter storm, snowfall and/or blizzard warnings. These criteria were informed by feedback from community partners and stakeholders, inputs from service users and staff and advice from health experts, including Toronto Public Health (TPH). The plan could result in Warming Centres being open an average of 19 more days per year. However, implementing these actions is subject to available space, staffing and budget.

Additional support from other orders of government is critically needed to ensure the continued delivery of these services. In the absence of added funding commitments, no money will be available to open and operate Warming Centres starting January 1, 2024. To maintain these critical services, today Council also approved a recommendation requesting $5 million from the federal and provincial governments to continue the delivery of winter services beyond December 31, 2023. Council also requested that staff report back to the Economic and Community Development Committee in September 2023 on the status of that funding request and offer a strategy to fund the opening of additional Warming Centres prior to the 2024 budget.

Availability of and access to affordable, supportive housing remains the solution to ending chronic homelessness in Toronto. A further recommendation approved by Council today urges the provincial and federal governments to infuse $20 million into the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit (COHB) in 2023-2024 to help between 1,600 and 2,000 households exit the shelter system and move into permanent housing. The COHB is a portable housing benefit that can be used across the province and has proven to be a cost-effective and efficient way to assist people to leave the shelter system and access permanent housing.

Given current budget pressures, the City is looking for where it can leverage relationships with outside partners to explore cost-neutral initiatives that will better the delivery of health services to those accessing the shelter system. A recommendation approved by Council today will allow the City to proceed with a data-sharing agreement with ICES (formerly the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences). As part of the Health of People Experiencing Homelessness Project, this initiative will allow the City to exchange data sets with ICES – specifically, sharing shelter client data and receiving deidentified administrative healthcare data. The data, once linked, can provide insight into the health issues affecting shelter clients and their health care utilization patterns, which can help inform the delivery of health services for people who access the shelter system, including primary care, harm reduction and mental health case management.

The City is committed to making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring, but it cannot do it alone. New and enhanced investments in housing and health and social services are critical to support those experiencing homelessness, along with upstream interventions across systems and across governments to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness, including increasing access to affordable housing and income supports that reflect the current cost of living.

The staff report, “Review of policies and procedures related to Warming Centres,” is available on the City’s website.