Extreme Cold Weather and the Toronto Homeless Shelter System: January 2016

Image description: A shopping cart full of bags and clothing is parked in front of the skating rink at Toronto City Hall. In the background, a person walks across the square.

OCAP statement released on the occasion of the City of Toronto's first extreme cold weather alert of 2016. On January 4, overnight temperatures went below -25C in parts of the city

Now that the first extreme cold weather alert has been called in Toronto, it is necessary to stress that the present inadequate measures to try and stave off the risk of freezing deaths can in no way be considered a reasonable or adequate response.

The extreme and disgraceful levels of overcrowding in the shelters create a situation where shelters are impossible to access for many and the conditions in them are an assault on the health and dignity of homeless people. This places lives at risk at all times and, certainly, during cold weather deemed less than 'extreme'.

It must be stressed that cramming people into warming centres or drop in facilities without adequate provision for their needs and basic comfort is not a solution. Even without the additional demand placed on the shelter system by extreme cold weather, overcrowding in the shelter system leads to unbearable conditions that can provoke desperate responses in people who need shelter services, and it is often these so-called “behavioral issues” that get people barred from the shelter system, especially people with substance use or mental health issues.

In this light, additional measures during severe weather are necessary but must be linked to broader measures to ensure adequate shelter provision. The City must stop relying on the overstretched, volunteer-run Out of the Cold program and open enough facilities to ensure that the long disregarded policy of keeping shelter occupancy at or below 90% is actually enforced. It must open these spaces in areas of the City where the need for them is greatest and stop subordinating the survival needs of the homeless to the agenda of redevelopment and gentrification