Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for Toronto in late December with temperatures breaking record lows. The struggle for individuals who are homeless is more pressing during the winter months. These record-breaking frigid temperatures result in the death of individuals who are homeless due to freezing. It is essential that Public Health Professionals reflect as to why these deaths are still happening, and why there is such a large homeless population in Toronto. CBCNews noted that the involvement of all three levels of government is needed to make change. As Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America and has the “financial wherewithal to better care for its homeless residents”, money is not an issue. The state of homelessness in Toronto is terrible and steps to address this issue has only “brushed the surface”. The Out of the Cold charity program which provides meal and shelter services was started 28 years ago is still heavily relied upon during the winter. The additional shelter beds in Toronto are over capacity. Currently Toronto is relying on volunteers to support the community and run the shelters. Mayor John Tory recently asked Ontario to convert the Moss Park armoury into a winter respite until the middle of April. The government accepted this request adding up to 100 new spaces for Toronto’s homeless. This armoury’s house is very limited, it is only open from 7pm to 7am. It was also recently announced that the city is adding more cots at the Better Living Centre, which is available 24/7. Unfortunately, the Better Living Centre is inaccessible to a large proportion of the downtown population that is homeless. Reflecting on the importance of meeting the needs of Toronto’s most vulnerable, it is essential to prevent individuals from entering into homelessness. Currently we are utilizing a “band-aid” solution to address homelessness. Opening up Moss Park is a start, but it is essential to do more. Temporary shelters do not provide the same service standards as permanent facilities. Winter happens every year and can result in life threatening conditions, despite this we approach this in a reactive mode. An upstream approach is needed in order to prevent homelessness. We need to plan ahead for next winter and not rely on community campaigns, and the generosity of volunteers. Homelessness is a complex problem, solutions exist. Winter comes and goes, when the warm weather approaches we cannot lose sight of the problem.
As Public Health Professionals, it is essential ensure that there is a response in plan to respond to extreme cold weather warnings. In a country like Canada, and a city like Toronto it is a major concern that we have such serious issues with poverty and homelessness. Shelters often don’t work for many homeless due to mental illness, fear of being victimized by theft among many other reasons. Shelters are not the only solution to homelessness. While being reactive and helping individuals experiencing homelessness in these extreme weather conditions, we need to address a long-term solution. Safe and affordable housing for individuals needs to become a priority for Toronto, in addition to a national housing strategy. It is crucial to make sure that individuals that are vulnerable are kept safe during the winter, and to find a plausible solution to reduce homelessness.