Toronto’s Winter Plan for Homeless People Opens 560 Spaces

Homeless person on Toronto streets during cold winter

Toronto has revealed details of its winter plan for people experiencing homelessness in the city. Around 560 new spaces will open through April, including a combination of shelter beds, hotel programs, 24-hour respite beds, and supportive housing units. These spaces had increased from last winter when 485 spaces were provided.

More space will be offered at warming centers, too. These are temporary emergency shelters that operate in Canada during the winter months when temperatures become dangerously low.

“We are doing everything we can as a city government to help our most vulnerable residents,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “The winter services plan will start earlier this year to ensure we have the space and resources we need to act quickly once the cold weather hits.”

However, advocates warn the increase in beds still isn’t sufficient as there is a growing number of rough sleepers living in the city’s encampments since the pandemic started.

The Demand for Emergency Shelter During the Winter

The winter plan is part of Toronto’s Interim Shelter Recovery and Infrastructure Implementation plan. This strategy outlines measures needed to protect homeless people and continue to offer shelter space while COVID-19 is prevalent.

As mentioned, the winter plan will offer around 560 new spaces through April, including shelter beds, hotel programs, and supportive housing units. Along with the additional warming centers, these spaces add to the 6,700 spots in Toronto’s shelter system available year round.

This marks the fifth consecutive year Toronto has increased available spaces during winter, demonstrating that homelessness continues to grow.

The spaces will include:

The Better Living Centre offers safe indoor space to rough sleepers so they can rest, eat, and access service referrals to improve their living conditions.

If an Extreme Cold Weather Alert (ECWA) is released by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, an additional 150 spaces will open at four warming centers, which can be found in different areas across Toronto.

This is the first year that more than one warming center is offered, allowing access to services across the city. Additionally, during an ECWA, Toronto’s Street to Homes program will expand its 24/7 mobile street outreach to help people living on the streets, encouraging and supporting them to retreat indoors for safe shelter. Outreach teams will also give out warm blankets and sleeping bags.

However, with so many forced onto the streets this year, will there be enough shelter for everyone?

Toronto’s 2020 To 2021 Winter Plan and COVID-19

Of course, this year is like no other. To keep rough sleepers safe in Toronto, the winter plan must follow strict guidelines to protect residents from COVID-19.

For years the Out of the Cold program has provided meals and overnight shelter to homeless people at various community locations each night. But with the emergence of COVID-19, the program closed in March. It is impossible to run the scheme within the Ministry of Health guidelines.

Offering a different site each night at various community locations would be a sure way of spreading COVID-19. An infected person would probably experience a few other sites before they – or the shelter providers – realized they were infected.

Instead, the new program model offers replacement shelter spaces 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the winter.

The city will continue with ongoing COVID-19 protocols. These procedures include:

  • Physical distancing between cots and people
  • Mandating the use of masks
  • Conducting continuous symptom screening
  • Boosting infection control and prevention measures
  • Providing areas for isolation and recovery

Toronto’s Winter Shelter System

In congregate sleeping spots or double occupancy rooms, the city will use impermeable barriers between beds to reduce spreading COVID-19. This will be in addition to the current two-meter distancing between beds in the shelter system.

“While the best solution to homelessness is permanent housing with supports, the winter plan will ensure we can continue to provide emergency services for those in immediate crisis and to protect people from both the risks of COVID-19 and cold weather,” said Mary-Anne Bédard, General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration of City of Toronto.

To keep with social distancing measures, capacity will also be introduced in the existing shelter system creating 220 new supportive housing units. This includes two new modular housing sites.

These housing units are part of Toronto’s HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan aiming to approve 40,000 new and affordable rental homes in the city, including 18,000 new supportive homes.

Additionally, Toronto will continue to offer 200 shelter beds in the system for single rough sleepers that remained open during the 2019-2020 winter season. While these beds were due to close in April amid the pandemic, they were kept open to help homeless people during the pandemic.

All services and spaces introduced are designed to keep vulnerable homeless people safe during the pandemic.

“People experiencing homelessness are at high risk for many health issues during the winter months, including the risk of becoming sick with COVID-19. The City’s plans for increasing shelter capacity this winter, paired with the necessary control measures to keep the COVID-19 virus from spreading, are important steps to help keep this vulnerable group safe,” said Dr. Michael Gardam, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control at Women’s College Hospital.

Staff members working in the shelter system will continue with ongoing COVID-19 protocols, too. These regulations include encouraging physical distancing throughout the shelter, hand washing, and the use of face masks by everyone.

Toronto plans to keep vulnerable rough sleepers safe by moving them into safe and secure indoor spaces through shelter programs, hotel spaces, and supportive housing units.

Is the Shelter System Safe Enough During COVID-19?

While city authorities attempt to reduce the spread of coronavirus, vulnerable homeless people sharing space in shelters remain at risk. People living in shared shelters have a high risk of contracting the virus. Meanwhile, those living in private, self-contained spaces like hotel rooms have a much lower risk of becoming exposed.

Approximately 649 people have tested positive for COVID-19 from shelter outbreaks in Toronto as of Sept. 27. Five people who used the shelter system in Toronto have died of COVID-19 as of Sept. 29.

It is also argued that increased space isn’t enough to keep Toronto’s homeless people safe this winter. COVID-19 has prompted more homelessness in the city, leaving rough sleepers on the streets more vulnerable than ever.

Everyone has a right to safe and sufficient housing this winter. However, what if there isn’t enough secure and available space for all rough sleepers in Toronto? In that case, city authorities must consider alternative ways of keeping its citizens safe. Tiny shelters are a temporary solution, but an option that the city has rejected.

Ellie Swain

Ellie Swain


Ellie is a freelance writer who grew up in London. She is passionate about ending homelessness and writes for various publications, non-profits, and marketing agencies to produce content. In her spare time, Ellie loves travelling to new places, exploring her city of London, and listening to live music.

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