Covid-19 has hit the entire world hard, but the homeless members of our community have been hit particularly hard. With the old shelter model (which was already working with razor-thin margins) no longer being as viable with public health regulations; and a massive shift in the housing market, there has been a major influx in people looking for somewhere, anywhere, to safely call home.
In one particular Toronto neighbourhood that is (according to some of the neighbours) causing a real problem.
A new interim 24-hour respite site for 28 homeless males that opened in June on the Esplanade near Church Street has nearby residents, particularly seniors, upset and calling for its removal.
“I’m not a person who gets scared, but it’s the first time in 23 years that I don’t feel secure in my neighbourhood,” said Joyce Barnes, 76, who teaches meditation and lives next door to the site.
“Things are getting worse by the day.”
Barnes said the site has become a gathering place for other homeless people, and that she was recently followed home from her local drug store by a homeless man, who kept within about 5 cm of her. When someone else approached, the man crossed the street and left, she added.
Local community members have also complained to the Star that the Esplanade site has led to open drug dealing and discarded needles, public intoxication and other incidents, including the stabbing of a homeless man in a bus shelter.
More than one neighbourhood has seen an increase in population and concerns
The Esplanade (“a particularly nice part of town” if you’re unfamiliar) isn’t the only neighbourhood to experience concerns in the wake of the “increased displacement” of the homeless.
The concerns are similar to those that have divided the Yonge and Eglinton neighbourhood, which has been at odds this summer over two interim homeless shelters — one has since closed because the building is being demolished — the city opened to create more physical distancing space in its shelters.
The situation highlights how the city is caught between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, it faces a deadly pandemic that spreads easily in congregate settings like a homeless shelter. In fact, it’s being sued by a coalition of public interest groups for allegedly failing to keep to the terms of an earlier court agreement forged to ensure physical distancing standards in the shelters. The city denies the allegations and a hearing is set for early October.
At the same time, the city is also under pressure from city residents about homeless “encampments” that have been springing up in more visible locations and interim shelters that are being set up by the city in communities that have never had them before.
Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of Toronto’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration, said the city had to “move quickly to save lives” in March in response to COVID-19 by getting people out of the crowded shelter system and outdoor encampments.
Public health requirements for physical distancing meant the city had to move almost 50 per cent of its shelter beds into new locations.
The city has since opened 25 interim sites for the homeless, 17 of them in hotels and others in spaces in the city, including the Esplanade site, a travellers’ hostel and a location that once served as a religious mission.
“The need to open so many new locations in such a short period of time — going into neighbourhoods that we’ve never been in before — it’s a new phenomenon for some communities, so there is a heightened level of concern,” Bedard said.
However, “I very much believe there is no wrong neighbourhood for a homeless shelter. It’s a community service — there are no communities that shouldn’t have this service,” said Bedard. “The same way that there’s no community that shouldn’t have a library or shouldn’t have a community centre.”
Nevertheless, the city is trying to balance concerns over increased street homelessness with concerns about new shelter sites, Bedard said.
The need for good shelter is a complex one
Having adequate shelter and housing for the homeless isn’t simply about keeping them “hidden.” It’s incredibly important that cities be able to meet with and support those in need. The shelter and supportive housing systems are (at present) one of the key ways to do that.
“Homelessness is impacting almost every community in Toronto one way or another,” she said. “When people are sheltered, the city is better positioned to support them and mitigate community concerns.”
Part of the reason for the increase in complaints about the homeless may be because they have become more visible during COVID-19.
Bedard pointed out that homeless people have become “a lot more open about where they are pitching their tents,” compared to before “when the tents were more out of sight, in ravines, under bridges and other secluded areas.”
Some homeless people have said they prefer staying in the outdoor tents because they feel safer and less susceptible to the coronavirus.
Why in my backyard?
The Esplanade space (formerly a fitness center) was offered for use by the current owners (Timbercreek Asset Management) after an outreach call from the city. The space is currently being leased for $0, with the agreement that the city will pay all operating costs including heat and hydro.
“The city was in a desperate situation with COVID-19 — the overcrowding in shelters and the need for safe social distancing,” said Colleen Krempulec, a senior spokesperson for Timbercreek. “At the end of the day, we just felt it was the right thing to do.”
Krempulec said that the end of January date for the lease expiry is firm, but she also added that “we’re in an evolving situation,” due to the coronavirus.
While some (the more cynical among us) may argue that Timbercreek Asset Management is also benefiting from not carrying the cost a vacant asset AND earning some goodwill from the city in the process; that’s kinda not the point.
A shelter space is now being offered to those who would otherwise be living in unsafe conditions, unable to receive the help and support they now have access to. Unless, “Erik Haites, 77, a semi-retired consultant who has lived since 1986 in a condo building attached to the respite site on the Esplanade” is correct when he says that he believes little is being done to support the homeless men using the facility.
“No efforts are being made to address their needs. They’re getting no help with their mental health, alcohol or drug addictions, or job training to help these people get out of their homelessness.”
He later went on to say: “just plunking people down in inappropriate (locations), then doing nothing is not the solution.”
But St. Felix Centre (which delivers programming and operates the respite), suggests that the 77 year old, semi-retired consultant and long time resident of The Esplanade may be mistaken.
residents have daily access to its casework team. Through the team, they can get help with housing supports, referrals to primary health care, psychiatry, substance use counselling and support, and other forms of assistance.
In terms of safety issues, St. Felix created a liaison committee, which includes members of the community, city officials, representatives of the local councillors and a community engagement coordinator.
“Our community engagement coordinator is in constant communication with different community stakeholders, the BIA, community police officers and the city to keep the centre’s senior leadership team informed of any possible challenges,” said St. Felix spokesperson Enrique Cochegrus in a statement.
“We also have our community safety team that monitors the immediate off-site area and conducts rounds in a designated area near the program to assist people experiencing crisis, de-escalate situations, do clean-ups, and support community members.”
Local city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said COVID-19 has made homelessness more “visible,” leading to tensions with local residents.
“Many service organizations have had to temporarily halt or restrict services, which combined with an increase in encampments, has pushed more vulnerable residents onto our sidewalks and into our park system, creating more conflicts over the use of space,” said Wong-Tam in a statement.
“Combined with fewer residents who have the fortune to have their own home … it is understandable that people feel less safe downtown as the balance of users has dramatically shifted.”
(please note that the views expressed in the article are solely those of the contributing sources to the original article as cited, the summary of this article should not be misunderstood to represent the views of the original publisher or its contributors)