At its meeting on Wednesday, a majority of City Council (15-11), including the Mayor, voted against opening 24/7 warming centres for unhoused residents and declaring a public health crisis in the City of Toronto related to the lack of access to 24-hour indoor space.
The following Toronto Board of Health recommendations were rejected by a majority of Council:
- City Council declare a public health crisis in the City of Toronto based on systemic failure of all three levels of government to provide adequate 24-hour, drop-in and respite indoor spaces, and call for the immediate provision of safe, accessible 24-hour respite spaces that are accessible through walk-in access.
- City Council direct the General Manager, Shelter Support and Housing Administration to provide 24/7 indoor warming locations until April 15, 2023, possibly including City of Toronto Warming Centres, and locations provided by community organizations, including faith-based groups, that would provide low-barrier, walk-in access to people in need of a safe place to spend the night.
How Did Your Councillor Vote?
Find out how your Councillor voted on the City’s website here. Click on the link; scroll to the bottom of the page to find the motions. Find Motion 2, moved by Councillor Thompson, with a vote of 15 in favour (of deleting the two Board of Health recommendations) and 11 opposed.
Heated Debate at Council
Councillor Thompson moved the motion to strike down these Board of Health recommendations, arguing that declaring a public health crisis would not result in any additional services being deployed, that City staff are already authorized to respond to the needs of unhoused people, and that City staff have indicated that they cannot operate 24/7 warming centres due to a lack of staffing available to provide the service.
He also opposed the first recommendation, suggesting that “embarrassing” senior orders of government would not produce positive results and that diplomacy and dialogue is the proper course of action.
Councillors in support of the Board of Health recommendations offered a different view: the depth of the crisis requires an urgency of action; the crisis should be named as such; access to 24/7 warming centres is the bare minimum of what must be provided; access to warm indoor spaces should be understood as a human rights issue and a matter of survival; and hoping that the provincial and federal governments will come to the rescue is not a viable strategy. They also stated that the recommendations from the Board provide flexibility in how 24/7 warming centres could be provided.
Check out memorable moments from the Council debate below.
City Council Looks to Province, Feds and Faith-based Charities for Help, Calls for Reports, Reviews and Plans
Instead of declaring a public health crisis and opening the needed services to support unhoused people through the next two months of cold weather, City Council passed a variety of motions looking for help from the federal and provincial governments and faith-based charities, requesting reports, directing staff to consult with community partners, and identifying options for additional warming centre locations.
City Council voted in favour of the following motions:
City Council call on the provincial government to require all large municipalities in Ontario to provide shelter space proportionate to their population, and that the Federal Government provide funding and support for refugees seeking emergency shelter in Toronto.
City Council request the General Manager, Shelter Support and Housing Administration to include, in the upcoming report to the Economic and Community Development Committee, the feasibility of providing 24/7 drop in spaces either at City of Toronto facilities or at locations provided by community/faith based institution.
City Council request each Councillor to join Ward 11 in identifying an available location in their ward for a warming centre or respite centre that can be opened, subject to budget approval and availability of staffing, this winter, and to notify the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration of the locations they have identified.
City Council request the Mayor and the Chair, Economic and Community Development Committee, to reach out to City of Toronto faith leaders to explore the feasibility of creating partnership with the Shelter Support and Housing Administration for the purpose of using available space in churches, mosques, gurdwaras, temples, and synagogues as warming centres.
City Council request the General Manager, Shelter Support and Housing Administration, to include, when conducting the review of policies and procedures of emergency warming centres operations requested in Item EC1.9, Review Of Extreme Weather Supports for Homeless and Under-Housed Individuals:
a. roundtable with homeless serving organizations, including faith-based groups, physicians, medical experts who work with people experiencing homelessness, and people with lived experience; and
b. survey of homeless-serving organizations, including faith-based groups, physicians, medical experts who work with people experiencing homelessness, and people with lived experience.
The Economic and Community Development Committee passed a related motion in January:
- Directed the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to review all policies and procedures related to the opening and operations of Emergency Warming Centres and report back at the April 25, 2023 meeting with recommendations on improvements that can be made including opening centers more proactively and reinvesting in community-outreach programs, such as Out of The Cold, which could reduce the pressures on city facilities.
- Directed the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to continue to use their discretion that takes into account all weather conditions when it comes to opening warming centres, not solely predicated on an emergency cold weather alert being issued, while this report is being prepared.
- Referred the following motion from Councillor Paul Ainslie to the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration for consideration as part of the report requested for April 25, 2023:
1. Economic and Community Development Committee request the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to consult with the Medical Officer of Health and relevant medical experts to examine and revise the environmental conditions required to declare an Extreme Cold Weather Alert, prioritizing the minimization of loss of life and cold-related injury and report to the April 25, 2023 meeting on:
a. aligning the opening of warming centres with the declaration of an Emergency Cold Weather Alert;
b. delegating authority for declaring an Emergency Cold Weather Alert and the opening of warming centres to the Medical Officer of Health;
c. ensuring that the Cold Weather Response Plan is implemented between September 15 and June 1 of each year, in line with the time period in which the City of Toronto’s minimum temperature by-law comes into effect for tenants;
d. ensuring that hot meals, adequate washrooms, showers, harm reduction supplies, and on-site social work and health supports are available in warming centres;
e. securing appropriate space — either within the City’s portfolio, through public service partners such as the TTC, by purchasing sprung structures, or through commercial rental opportunities — to ensure an equitable, City-wide network of warming Centres; and
f. providing the funding required to deliver an equitable, City-wide network of warming Centres, either through the City or through agency partners, with a fair wage policy in place for all staff."
These are important measures, but do not take the place of providing the immediate and lifesaving services required right now.
City’s High Cost Estimate for Warming Centres Raises Questions
A City staff supplementary report provided a preliminary cost estimate of $400,000 per month to operate a warming centre to support 50 people — $8,000 per person per month. The estimate does not include other health and harm reduction services or lease costs, if City-owned space is not available. SPT and others have raised questions about the accuracy of this high cost estimate.
We had a look at City costs from 24/7 respite centres operating year-round in 2019. City of Toronto budget documents show that 700 spaces in respite centres cost $28 million in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of these 700 spaces operating 24/7/365 would be $33.5 million in 2023. In comparison, applying the City estimate of $400,000, the cost of 700 spaces operating 24/7/365 would be $67.2 million, more than double the City’s previous respite centre costs.¹ (Note that the Board of Health recommendation is not for year-round service, but only access to 24/7 indoor warming locations until April 15, 2023.)
Why would the cost be twice as much?
Journalist Matt Elliott points out the warming centre estimate is higher than the cost of operating an emergency shelter, which does not add up either:
Frontline worker Diana Chan McNally raises similar questions about the high cost estimate:
Next Up…On February 15, Toronto City Council will cast its final votes on the 2023 budget. The Mayor and Council need to open the 24/7 indoor warming services that are required to protect unhoused people — for life, limb, and health.
 $400,000 per month X 12 months = $4.8 million for 50 people; $4.8 million X 14 = $67.2 million for 700 people for 24/7/365 service. Note: The Toronto Board of Health recommendation is to provide 24/7 indoor warming locations until April 15, 2023. We calculated the cost of year-round, 24/7 service using the $400,000 estimate in order to compare previous City costs for respite centres in 2019 (presented in current dollars).
Memorable Moments from the Debate
Here are some quotes from the meeting to give you a better flavour of the discussion:
“We heard from him [general manager of Shelter, Support and Housing Administration division] yesterday, that it will cost us $400,000, I think it is $400,000 per month for each of these particular facilities. So if we don’t get federal and provincial funding to help us, we have to spend more money from the City, which we are not basically suggesting that we don’t want to do; we want to spend money to help the situation. But to think that this is a City of Toronto problem alone, which it isn’t, it’s everyone’s problem. So by calling it a crisis and not having the ability to respond to it in that way, or having any resources to come to the specific condition and concern is, in my view, disingenuous from the perspective of saying, highlighting the problem which we already know exists and we’re not going to do much about it. My motions seek to actually do more to address the issue… We have probably the very best person in the history of this city who has been able to champion the causes for the city, who has been able to champion resources for the city, in no other person than Mayor Tory. And so we have this particular person in place who can help us with the dialogue, the discussion [with federal and provincial government].” — Councillor Thompson
(Check out our discussion above about the City’s $400,000 cost estimate for 24/7 warming centres and why that figure looks out of whack.)
“I find Councillor Thompson’s motion [to delete the first two recommendations from the Board of Health] shameful and the reason I believe it’s shameful is both, it is obtuse to the crisis, to the urgency of this moment that we must meet. It aspires to this possibility that we will be bailed out by the federal or provincial governments which they’ve proven not to do for us over and over and over again…I just find it so hypocritical and once again shameful that when we want to do a performative action like find money to put police, paying them overtime, to be in these arbitrary spots on this massive transit system - when there’s no evidence that they actually prevent crime in that context, that there’s no evidence that the city’s getting any safer… It’s amazing we can just find money when we want to… but when we’re actually talking about something real, something substantive, access for life, safety and health. Well, let’s just write a letter to the feds and the province and hope they come to our rescue. That’s absurd.” — Councillor Matlow
“I’m someone who believes that it is our responsibility to love the people who are struggling… My commitment is to always do what will help the most vulnerable in our communities… We should not build a city where people have to live in such an undignified way. They should be met with compassion and the places where they land should be places where people know their names, not just a problem that we are trying to shift around from one location to another.” — Councillor Cheng
“Last week, the number of warming spots in downtown Toronto were doubled because a new warming centre was opened in my ward at the Cecil Community Centre. That required cooperation from a lot of people. It also required the people who use that centre, the kids programs, the choir, the family programs, they all had to give up their space and give up their program during the extreme cold weather so that 30 to 35 desperate people had a place to stay and that was a trade-off that people were prepared to make. But that happened only in my ward. My second motion is to challenge each and every one of my colleagues: bring a warming centre or respite centre to SSHA in time that it can be opened this winter. We need places; it isn’t just up to staff to do it. We also have a responsibility. I challenge each of you [councillors] to join me in bringing such a centre.” — Councillor Saxe
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a gurdwara. But that’s the model we should be following, where you can go there, anybody’s welcome. You go in there, you get something to eat. You can sleep… I wish the other faith leaders would follow that lead. Because government can’t do this by itself. As you can see here today, we’re beating each other up, saying that ‘Councillor Thompson didn’t do enough’, ‘you’re disingenuous.’ This is exactly what the feds and the province want us to do is beat each other up and blame each other. You know, Councillor Thompson has been in the front lines of this for, I don’t know, 10 years. He’s the one that’s made it possible for 9,000 beds to be there… We may disagree, but by beating up each other and not looking upstream. Like right now, as we heard yesterday, 2,700 of the people in our shelter system are refugee claimants, 2,700, and we don’t get any money for these 2,700. We welcome the refugees here but we have no control over our borders. The federal government is in charge of refugee claimants. We need money so we can house them. We don’t get that money. Let’s not even talk about the provincial government… All their great housing plans. There’s not one dollar, it’s zero. In fact, they took out $230 million in development charges for building housing… By doing this internal bashing, we are not helping the homeless. We’re not helping ourselves, and we’re not helping the people of Toronto.” — Councillor Colle
“Upwards of 100 people are being turned away from central intake because there are no shelter spaces available… We have a duty in our city to protect each other, especially in harsh and cold weather conditions. It was bitterly cold this weekend. We saw, yet again, the desperate need for warm spaces and the impact that that not having that has on our neighbours experiencing homelessness… The City’s current approach of opening and closing its few warming centres based on limited criteria, leaves people suffering through rain and snow and the drops in temperature, unsure of where they can go and for how long and how to get there. We also heard yesterday that, before the pandemic, Toronto had 24/7 respite and drop-in spaces where people could walk in anytime and be warm indoors. Today, 24/7 walk-in spaces are no longer available, and people are seeking shelter anywhere they can find warmth… TTC, libraries, hospitals, coffee shops. Toronto can and must do more, and we can do better for people right now to keep them safe and save lives… Torontonians from all walks of life are counting on us today… We need 24/7 indoor spaces with walk-in access and livable conditions and of course, the City must address the housing crisis with the urgency it requires and ensure housing is a human right, and we need to ensure we have warming spaces right now that are open when people need them.” — Councillor Malik
“No one is standing here today and suggesting that great work has not happened. That there aren’t important protections and social supports already part of our system. There are. But we’ve heard as well that this is the most unequal city…and that is largely an outcome of how our systems do, or do not work…what I think is not acceptable, is for us to turn our back on Torontonians who need us. We’re on the front lines, and we’ve heard from my colleague, no, making a motion to request more resources from the province or federal government is not going to result in that outcome. So I do agree to say that unfortunately this amendment [to delete the first two Board of Health recommendations] feels like us not taking on the responsibilities that I believe we have…We can do better than what we’re doing currently.”
— Councillor Morley
“I have tremendous respect and trust of our public service, and in particular, Mr. Tanner and his team…I can tell you stories of phone conversations that I’ve had on really sensitive issues, and they are the most human of humans. They do their work because they have a passion for other people, especially those people that are in need…Committee decision number two [decision from EC1.9, Economic and Community Development Committee] says, they directed the general manager of Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to continue to use their discretion, that takes into account all weather conditions when it comes to opening warming centres, not solely predicated on emergency, cold-weather alert, being issued while this report is being prepared…It’s a discretion that is applied, and it is applied by people that really understand the shelter system and all of its moving parts…But I‘m so concerned that clever councillors have smarter ideas than our public service. And that you know, magically, there’s this secret answer. Open this up for these number of days and suddenly, this is all going to be solved. I trust our public service. If they were coming to us saying, ‘Look, we ran out of money. We’re really worried. We’d like to do this, this and this.’ They’d come. I trust that they will. But it’s the other way around. Instead of trying to define the issue that we’re trying to solve. We run straight to the answer. And then it’s made, of course, into a political fight at Council for larger reasons. My vote and the way that I vote in this process goes to trusting what advice is brought before us by people who truly know the system and people that I truly trust, are passionate and fair and human about what is required. I hope members of council will think about that and the implication of what your vote means to how you trust Toronto’s public service and the services that they offer to the most vulnerable people in the city.” — Councillor Holyday
“It’s really sad to see the level of homelessness in the city that has truly reached a crisis…I just spoke to Gord Tanner from shelters [Shelter, Support and Housing Administration division] and he says that there is not enough staff to actually run 24/7 indoor warming locations across the city. Maybe if they work with their partners, and their community partners, they can open one which I think would be a step in the right direction. But we also have to be cognizant of the fact that there are just not enough people to actually run 24/7 indoor warming centres across the city, and I think we have to accept that reality, no matter our best effort. And I think if we add in Councillor Saxe’s very helpful motion to put that amendment in of ‘using our best efforts’, both of these amendments could make a good impact and helping us to resolve the crisis that we’re in.” — Councillor Myers
“What’s different now is the nature of the homelessness that we’re seeing…This is a situation that we haven’t seen in the city before, and we need to act like it…The strategy of opening and closing these ‘getting inside centres’, it doesn’t matter what you call them, is confusing to people and we heard that in questions, and we heard that from the community…There's a cost that we pay when we see the people who are homeless are sheltering in transit and in libraries and in the foyers of buildings, and there’s a cost to the homeless person, hypothermia, a loss of a hand, of toes, death. That’s a very high cost to bear…We can agree that the provincial government has a huge responsibility, that it doesn’t pay its bills in relation to social services…We can go back even further and say that the Paul Martin budget in the 1990s, early 90s, when the federal government got out of investing in the construction of affordable housing has been devastating for the City of Toronto and for the whole region…But even though we didn’t make this crisis in Toronto, it’s come to our doorstep and we have to do something about it…It’s about listening to so many people. 10,300 people signed a petition. We are talking about the deputations that we heard at ECDC and Board of Health. We’re talking about in my ward, small business people, resident associations are telling me to fight like hell for this…We heard from 79 department heads and doctors from hospitals…We also heard from the Ontario Human Rights Commission which, I think, shows the bar has been raised for us. This is a systemic problem, that’s regional, it’s provincial...But we have a responsibility to act. We can’t go to the provincial and federal government and say ‘hey, get on this’ if we don’t escalate our action and treat this thing like the crisis that it truly is. We have to name it. If you don’t name something, you don’t action it, you don’t solve it…It’s the fiscally prudent choice because we pay in other ways. It costs about $100 million to police homelessness. We’re investing so much in enforcement, and we know that if we get people inside they can get support…We can respect their humanity and treat this idea that everybody should be inside as a human right and of course, we have so many important community-based partners who will come to our aid, I’m sure, if we say that we want to treat this like the urgency that it is.” — Councillor Bravo
“I have problems with a declaration of crisis motion [from the Board of Health recommendations] that seeks to assign blame right within the motion, that it’s got to be somebody’s fault and there’s got to be a solution and it has to be my solution and it can’t be anybody else’s solution. It’s got to be the one I brought today. That’s why I have a problem with those motions. It is a crisis. Does anyone in this room think that the Medical Officer of Health and the General Manager of SSHA doesn’t know it’s a crisis. Of course they do. The province might not know it’s a crisis, but their Auditor General told them it is. He said you have no strategy, none, not for any city in Ontario, and you need one right now…We did a lot of things. [Council/the City] We took a lot of actions. I have a lot of problems with my colleague’s speech saying Councillor Thompson’s motion says we are doing nothing. The reason we didn’t move [a motion], ‘Mr. Tanner, do something’, at Economic Development was because we heard that he was doing everything possible right now. As a result of the conversation in that committee, he said if I had the space I could pull together five bodies right now, I could do another centre. And Councillor Saxe said, ‘what about Cecil Street? Let’s go.’ And a week later, it opened. But do I have 10 more bodies to take every warming centre right now and turn it into a 24 hours? No, we actually don’t. You could get 10 bodies, and turn one of them into a 24 hour and open no more, or you could take those 10 bodies and open two more if there’s a willing councillor who will place it in their community…Those are the types of things that Mr. Tanner is doing every day. That’s why we didn’t move [a motion], ‘could you please do everything right now?’ Because he is.” — Councillor Carroll
“I do think it’s important though that we have the term ‘a crisis’ in the conversation, and it needs to stay in the conversation. You know, the number of times that I’ve talked with MPs and MPPs in particular in Scarborough, we recently had a homeless shelter built in my ward. When I heard from residents and we discussed why there was a shelter going in the ward, time and again, the word ‘crisis’ came up, whether you want to refer to it as a homeless crisis, a housing affordability crisis. I think that the word crisis has to say on the table…I was reading an article the other day on New York City and how they were dealing with homelessness and one of their advocates, he defined homelessness as a prism held up to society and what we see refracted are the weaknesses, not only in our health care system, our public health system, our housing system, especially our welfare system, our educational system, and our legal system, our correction systems. He said if we’re going to fix this problem, we have to work together to fix the weaknesses of all of those sectors…I think to have an adequate and a proper amount of attention paid to what’s going on in the homelessness situation, not only in Toronto but I think right across this country, as the largest city in Canada, we need to identify it is a crisis.” — Councillor Ainslie
[Councillor Ainslie attempted to move a motion similar to the Board of Health’s recommendation 1, declaring a public health crisis; his motion did not include the reference to the “systemic failure of all three levels of government”; his motion was ruled out of order because it was similar to the Board recommendation]
“It is absolutely unacceptable when folks trying to, you know we have, we have winter here in this country, and sometimes our winter becomes real, real cold. And in my view, it’s unacceptable when somebody who wants to come out of that cold has to seek refuge on buses, subways, emergency wards, stairwells because we don’t have a system that is able to deal with that, that is able to deal with someone who essentially wants to come out of the cold. I believe that that’s absolutely unacceptable. Do these motions that we have in front of us today from various councillors, will that do that? I don’t know… I, for one, don’t believe that we have a system nimble enough to be able to respond to that… Here’s what I do know, I know that we are currently, we have a system that is completely unsustainable, completely unsustainable. You’re talking about fast growing budget areas in our budget…We’re here in an acrimonious exercise, talking about people sheltering themselves on buses and stairwells and in emergency rooms, it’s embarrassing, it’s embarrassing for all of us. So, if the collective motions in front of us force our staff to go away and think about what it is that we’re doing here, and develop a more sustainable plan where we can shelter people, everyone who needs shelter, then I’m happy to support it.” — Councillor Perruzza
“I just want to start by saying thank you to SSHA for all the work that they do and have continued to do…I can say to you that over the last 20+ years, 22 to be exact, I worked in the health care field, working with people who are suffering from addictions and mental health and underhoused. I have spent days in our shelter system, working in different shelters. I’ve worked at the Gerstein Centre, spent some time there shadowing the work that they do. I’ve spent days at Seaton House, working with the staff there and seeing how hard the work is and honestly, these people deserve a medal for the work that they do. So, I know firsthand how hard the work is and living in Toronto Centre and representing Toronto Centre, I have seen in the last three years how the city has changed and that there’s so many people on the streets of Toronto, in every corner, you know, every street corner…I have to say that what we’re doing here is not sustainable. We cannot go cap in hand to the province and the federal government every time and every year because they are not coming to our rescue… There is no easy path forward… I will be supporting the motion bringing forward by Toronto Public Health. I think it’s reasonable and it is compassionate and it’s thoughtful.” — Councillor Moise
“Our job is to represent the people of Toronto and make decisions about how we govern ourselves. I do not believe there is a single person in Toronto who would disagree with the idea that the government of Toronto should do everything that it can to give people a safe and warm space to be during the day and somewhere to sleep at night. Every Torontonian agrees with that. And we are here to turn that into action…You have two options… The Board of Health recommendations, with the amendments, tell City staff, do everything you can to make sure that, right starting now, we make every effort we can to make sure that everyone in Toronto has a warm and safe space to be and somewhere to sleep at night… Councillor Thompson‘s motions say something different. They say don’t do those things, instead wait for a report in April and ask the other governments to do more. Now, I don’t object to asking the other governments to do more…The provincial government has walked away from their responsibilities… The federal government’s housing plan is inadequate, and the City of Toronto has been left adrift without adequate revenues to pay for the services…But we are the last line of defence and in a moment like this with everyone we represent asking us to do everything possible, that’s what we do…Not long ago, we were getting calls because people were concerned about whether the transit system is safe, and the mayor went to the police headquarters, and stood up and said, ‘as of today, we are going to put additional police officers onto the TTC’ and he was asked, ‘how are you going to pay for that?’ and he said, ‘it doesn’t matter, we will figure it out. We will just get it done’, and we heard from the City Manager that…we aren’t being told to have a specific offset in our budget figure… the TTC and police will figure it out from within their resources. So when we need to, we can just tell staff make your best effort…That’s what we can do when we choose to…Torontonians do not want us to do what Councillor Thompson is recommending, which is to delete that work, to not call on staff to do this, to not make best efforts but instead put everything in a report that goes in April and ask somebody else to solve the problem. Anyone who votes for Councillor Thompson‘s motion will not be representing Torontonians.” — Councillor Perks
“I’m supporting this motion [Board of Health recommendations] because I think it’s time - sometimes when these things happen, we turn our chairs in and think we have to do this, we can’t do that — it’s the time to turn the chairs out. Almost in the same way that the mayor said, ‘I want to have a national mental health advisory meeting.’ Those chairs, turn them out…Yes, we need to be phoning our MPs and we need to be putting the pressure on…We don’t put enough pressure [on other orders of government to pay their fair share] to say pony up…and I think that’s our job. But really and truly, when we look at the number of renovictions, the number of people that can’t pay their rent, the number of business failures, we thought that was in the pandemic. I’m sorry, this is the rollout and the echo and the earthquake has many shockwaves after. These are the shockwaves of the pandemic… Every time we talk about housing, let’s not forget the Residential Tenancies Act, the raise in rents that’s happening everywhere, the scandalous raise in rents, and the refusal of some levels of government to deal with that, because that adds to our crisis of homelessness. If I were to say to you that the City of Parry Sound, the whole City of Parry Sound has a population that’s the same as the number of homeless people in Toronto, would you call that a crisis? I would.” — Councillor Fletcher