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Bright Spot: Toronto houses over 1,300 people through its COVID-19 response

July 30, 2020 - 1:00 am / News

One of the largest and densest cities in Canada remained housing focused as it responded to the global pandemic, alleviating what could have been a catastrophic loss of life among people experiencing homelessness. This blog is a part of our Bright Spot series highlighting outstanding work in ending homelessness happening across Canada. 


Toronto has used COVID-19 as an opportunity to expedite efforts underway to pivot away from managing homelessness with short-term solutions, to leveraging their pandemic response to invest in permanent solutions—and have housed over 1,300 people in doing so. Since March 16, Toronto opened 30 facilities and moved 3,500 people experiencing homelessness overall in their response to the pandemic. 

The Built for Zero Canada community led the pandemic response charge in Canada and moved swiftly to protect vulnerable citizens who had no home to stay safe in. Since March 16, Toronto has opened more than 30 new temporary facilities and (as of June 25) moved more than 3,500 people into temporary community centre programs, hotels, interim and permanent housing. This includes 1,750 clients across 17 hotel sites, creating 500 spaces in 13 community centres and other sites for temporary shelter, 148 people moving out of encampments into interim housing and 1,309 people moving into permanent housing through their Rapid Housing Initiative, housing allowances and rent-geared-to-income supports. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the issue of homelessness and the urgent need for permanent housing solutions to protect the health and well-being of this vulnerable population,” says Laural Raine, Director of Service Planning with the City’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA).  

When the pandemic was declared, Toronto redeployed 700 city staffers from various divisions to work in its temporary shelter sites. They had administration’s support to make this happen, but also the ability to access city facilities, expedite approvals and purchasing, develop a comprehensive online training curriculum for redeployed staff, and boost PPE distribution. 

“We also couldn’t have done this without the tremendous partnership and strong communication across the whole homelessness sector, through networks like the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness and the Toronto Shelter Network,” Laural notes, including health partners at Inner City Health Associates and the Toronto Central LHIN.  

The city’s Coordinated Access system and By-Name List provided the foundation and strength of those partner relationships across the sector “to continue to work together to achieve our shared goals,” Laural says. 

“At the same time, we were able to keep a focus on housing and support in the midst of this emergency, primarily because of the momentum of the past few years and the collective consensus that permanent solutions always need to be at the forefront,” she adds. 

Launching initiatives in the middle of a pandemic 

As a result of COVID-19 and the urgent need to increase housing stock to fight homelessness, the city has expedited its plan to create 250 modular supportive housing units. They’re also rolling out the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit program, which will support over 900 households, and increased funding by $2 million to its Rent Bank program that will help 800 households.  

Toronto’s answer to the pandemic includes kicking off two major initiatives on top of the emergency response. In March 2020, they launched the Rapid Housing Initiative in partnership with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation to identify vacancies for clients in the shelter system—and up to 250 permanent rent-geared-to-income units have been found. More than $1.2 million in corporate donations have been secured to furnish the apartments. 

On April 29, the city launched the Interim Housing Program to address the growing number of people staying in encampments. People sleeping outdoors are offered placements for up to six months in interim housing, which is meant to act as a bridge to more permanent housing options.  

“The city acquired the property from a local developer,” explains Mary-Anne Bėdard, General Manager of Shelter, Support and Housing Administration. “The buildings were slated for demolition as a part of a revitalization project and the units were made available until the issuance of construction permits resume.” People are prioritized for these spaces from encampments, based on health and safety concerns, and identified at a higher risk to COVID-19 harms.  

The Streets to Homes outreach team works with community partners to approach individuals and couples who are sleeping outdoors. Residents are then provided with on-site supports including meals, 24/7 staff support, security and case management focused on long-term housing and other immediate needs, including harm reduction.  

Toronto’s response is based on a three-tier approach focused on prevention, mitigation, and recovery. “Our aim has been to stay one step ahead of the pandemic and continue to adapt and evolve our response as the situation has continued to change over the past three months,” Mary-Anne says. 

Lessons learned 

One of the most important lessons learned so far has been the importance of planning and responding early, according to Mary-Anne. When the first COVID-19 cases hit Canada, they immediately started discussions and planning their response. Weeks before Toronto would see its own spread, SSHA engaged community partners in prevention measures.  

“We’ve also learned that we needed to be nimble in our approach, rapidly implementing our three-tier plan and mobilizing our response to an urgent basis, to be as prepared and stay one step ahead of what has been a very rapidly evolving situation,” Mary-Anne says.  

“A key focus has been to ensure that the programs we have developed in response to COVID-19 are places where people feel safe, welcome, respected, and dignified, with a strong focus on harm reduction approaches.” 

Another key factor is maintaining a Housing First approach, even in an emergency response. Despite the barriers, the best decision was to identify opportunities in the changing housing market and opportunities for leveraging them to build long-term strategies to end homelessness, according to Mary-Anne. 

“This was a significant and unprecedented expansion to our service system,” Mary-Anne says. “COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to shift the system away from expensive, emergency responses to solutions that are both more cost-effective and more effective for clients.” 

And the two key strategies behind that are repurposing shelters into long-term housing and purchasing hotels and other buildings for housing. “Rapid rehousing during the pandemic has produced positive outcomes very quickly and demonstrated that it is possible for people to move from shelter quickly, be successful, and improve their health and quality of life.” 

Looking ahead 

As the potential second wave approaches, Toronto is actively thinking about what the interim recovery plan will be. Part of the plan is to continue to work closely with service providers and ensure measures remain in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while also coordinating with the health-care system.  

This approach has required the city to work across government lines and the sector, including seeing the HOUSINGTO 2020-2030 Action Plan through with that continued collaboration. 

“We are already seeing more newly homeless and need to be preparing for increased pressures on our shelter system – helping people maintain their housing and securing units for rehousing,” Laural says. 

The Action Plan includes a target of 40,000 new affordable rental homes approvals including 18,000 units of supportive housing over the next decade. The city has a target to create 600 units of supportive housing on an annual basis starting this year. There is also a commitment to create 1,000 new modular homes. 

“What the experience of the past few months has shown is that we shouldn’t go back to the way things used to be once this pandemic is over. This response has demonstrated that there is an opportunity to do things differently and that when we take action collectively and mobilize towards a shared goal we can have a significant impact very rapidly. However, this is only the first step. We need to continue to do more to end chronic homelessness.” Laural says.  

Regardless of the pandemic, Toronto’s view is that we need to continue to implement housing solutions that put people’s health first, and that the best and only solution to homelessness is to provide people with permanent housing. While COVID-19 has magnified the issue of homelessness, as the city’s response to the pandemic shifts towards recovery efforts, building on this foundation provides an opportunity to rebuild a better future for all. 

This blog is a part of our Bright Spot series highlighting outstanding work in ending homelessness happening across Canada.