https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/10/10/as-winter-nears-a-homelessness-crisis-pushed-out-of-sight-is-only-getting-worse.html

The doors haven’t yet opened at the downtown church handing out lunches, but Bob Shinton is already in line — all he owns in the world in a single bag, slung over his shoulder.

It’s coming on two years since Shinton fell into homelessness, and he’s no stranger to falling through the cracks. While battling mental health challenges, he’s spent weeks at a time in the hospital, hoping for better therapies, and both found and lost a space in the city’s shelter hotels.

For about a week, Shinton had been staying at a Toronto hostel site he described as little more than cots set up in an open room, packed with men each night as the winter nears.

“These lines are getting bigger,” Shinton observed on Wednesday, glancing around Trinity Square, the patch of hard ground in front of the Church of the Holy Trinity, tucked just behind the Eaton Centre. “There’s just more people becoming homeless.”

He’s right. Across Toronto, there’s been an unrelenting increase in homelessness. In just a year, Toronto went from 8,479 people considered actively homeless to 9,724 in August.

The impacts have been palpable. Shelters are packed, with zero emergency beds for women available at night’s end last Tuesday, plus three for mixed adults and 10 for men. All-hours respite sites and women’s drop-in facilities also hit 100 per cent capacity that night.

More and more people are turning to living outside — though, save for a sizable camp in Allan Gardens, encampments are more out of sight than last year. Tents are no longer pinned down in Trinity Bellwoods or Alexandra Park. The second- and third-largest concentration, as of Sept. 27, were in the Rosedale Ravine Lands and Lower Don Parklands. Citywide, there was a rise from 88 known camps in early May to 149 in late September.

Taken together, these numbers suggest a city facing a mounting crisis as the challenging winter months near — when demand for indoor shelter space surges.

The Church of the Holy Trinity is a picture of that crisis in miniature: located in the heart of downtown, it lays bare the failures of housing unaffordability, mental health care access, food insecurity and a wealth of other ailments plaguing Toronto today, including poisoned street drugs.

Shortly before 11:30 a.m., a barefoot man approaches the steps of the church, asking gingerly for a pair of shoes. Staff member Dang Din nods and asks what size he should search for among the church’s donated garments. Size 10, the man responds, and Din hurries inside. When he returns, a second man slumped over the steps makes the same request.

The staff and volunteers who buzz through the church nave and kitchen try to fill an array of needs — from proper nourishment to adequate clothing to sleeping bags in the winter, pet food for those who need it, and connections at times with health or housing workers.

On Wednesday, there’s a sprawling queue for a bagged lunch: a turkey pesto or ham and cheese sandwich, plus snacks like veggie sticks and granola bars. In an hour and a half, the team estimates it served about 130 meals, which is typical.

“It’s something that should never be, and yet here it is — and this is just one place. If you think of all the places that are around, how many people are having to deal with this?” said volunteer Paul Catalano.

Many in line have contended with homelessness for years. “Friends will sometimes put me up for a few days at a time, then I’m back out here,” said Frank Jeffries. He won’t stay in the city’s shelter system, fearing thefts or violence. As previously reported by the Star, there’s been a sharp increase in violent incidents in Toronto shelters, which has been attributed to the opioid crisis, crowding and a shortage of adequate mental health supports.

Jeffries feels an apathy from the social systems around him, after seeing three friends die from what he believes were fentanyl overdoses. “The only help that basically any of those people get is naloxone kits,” he said. “It’s not even medical professionals doing it. It’s people like myself.”

This year, samples of fentanyl taken to Toronto’s drug checking service have found it repeatedly mixed with a cocktail of other drugs: tranquilizers such as flualprazolam and xylazine, or the even more potent synthetic carfentanil. Street drug toxicity is a heavy factor in the mounting deaths among Toronto’s homeless population, memorialized each month at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Last year, an average of 4.3 people died each week while homeless, up from 1.8 a week in 2018, according to Toronto Public Health data.

Encampments are now more spread out than during the early months of the pandemic. City staff logged more than 50 individual locations with encampments on Sept. 27, and 36 of them had a single structure. They included spaces like the Frank Faubert Wood Lot and the Gatineau Hydro Corridor Trail. The more concentrated locations included the 12 structures counted by staff that day in the Rosedale Ravine, the 11 structures in the Lower Don Parklands and five apiece in Downsview Park and Nordheimer Ravine.

Greg Cook, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Toronto, worries that people living outside will be more isolated this winter, and farther away from washrooms, food and places to get warm.

“The situation is worse than last year,” Cook said, recalling a woman he encountered recently on a rainy day. She was in just a tank top, and was wet and cold, he said. After getting her a dry jacket, he called the city’s intake line and was told to try again later for a space.

When he left for the night, the woman had the central intake number written down, but no phone of her own. Cook didn’t know if she was able to find one, or access a shelter bed that night.

In August, an average of 138 callers each day went unmatched with shelter spaces, according to city statistics — up from 100 callers in June and fewer than nine last summer. Cook also worries, amid these pressures, about the city’s ongoing efforts to close its 27 temporary pandemic-era shelters by the end of next year, and where their occupants will end up.

“When there isn’t a safe place for people to go, it’s just more and more people on the street, and the problems that come with that,” said Tara Currie, the head chef at the Church of the Holy Trinity.

She and fellow staff member Sinclair Bletcher-Lowman each stress that the mounting number of people facing homelessness in Toronto isn’t simply a consequence of skyrocketing rents.

But it is a major factor, both said. And it’s something Kevin Healey, who works with a local health-care group and sat outside the church on Wednesday, knows personally. He spent more than half a year homeless during the pandemic, between losing his housing and finding a place to rent in a friend’s basement.

“I work four days a week. I don’t make a lot of money,” he said. He’d scour rental listings to no avail. “I can’t afford it, even at the lowest price.”

Still, Bletcher-Lowman said sometimes they luck out and find someone a place within their price range. That’s when other important questions arise — is that home safe and secure? Is it a place where someone wouldn’t face problems if they had a breakdown in their mental health? “It’s too simplistic to look at this as just a housing crisis,” Bletcher-Lowman said.

“It’s a bigger problem, of just the system at large,” Currie added, urging a closer look at who ended up in their meal lineup — a significant number of people living with physical disabilities or mental illnesses, and a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people.

She’s watched as the landscape has worsened, with an increasing number of people turning up at the church in dire circumstances. “It’s just more and more people in crises.”

Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: victoriagibson@thestar.ca