The city has not set a firm deadline to forcibly remove people living in makeshift encampments beneath the Gardiner Expressway but if they do decide to pack up a place will be found for them to stay.
That message was part of a sit-down interview with senior staff from the city division responsible for shelter management on Tuesday, amid escalating public pressure to improve and expand existing services.
“Toronto has invested a lot of funds, resources and staffing to try and manage the current situation,” said Paul Raftis, general manager of the shelter, support and housing administration, speaking broadly about services for people experiencing homelessness. “That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t do more and we are constantly looking at other creative solutions.”
About two weeks ago people who set up tents or makeshift structures, including some under the Gardiner, were handed notices informing them they had 14 days to remove debris and personal goods or face “further enforcement” prompting fears that sweeping evictions were coming.
The city said that is not the case and the notices are handed out to let people know they are violating city rules and their possessions could be moved. He said the city will work to find them an alternate place to stay if they decide to leave.
“There is always a space to come in out of the cold,” he said, adding the division has also overhauled their internal communications to ensure people get faster access to all forms of shelter.
He said the division will conduct an operational review of winter services and plan to present the findings to city council later this year.
The Star’s May Warren spoke to people beneath the expressway to find out why they choose exposure to the elements over other forms of available shelter. Some said they desired privacy and independence. Others were not convinced other options were available.
“We’re pretty tight, pretty good people. We check in on each other, that’s kind of the reason to be here,” said Richard Smith, who lived in a green tent with his dog Pixie. He said he had not received a notice.
Brad Ross, the city’s chief communication officer, said eight people were given notices two weeks ago. The city regularly cleans up makeshift sites for health and safety reasons and the notices are not new and are used to alert people to the fact that the structures are a violation of city rules.
He said people’s possessions can be moved, but those items would be stored rather than tossed out. He added a ninth person was recently given a notice.
The fear of displacement became part of a public conversation around supporting people in need in a city with a severe shortage of affordable and supportive housing, one fuelled by the recent deaths of Crystal Papineau, 35, who was trapped in a clothing donation bin, and Hang Vo, who was run over by a garbage truck in an alley.
On Tuesday, front line workers and advocates, standing with city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam, Gord Perks and Josh Matlow, held a morning press conference at city hall. They said homelessness must be declared a humanitarian crisis and the city should call on all levels of government to provide immediate support.
Next Monday all city divisions will put forward their budget requests, including the shelter division. Staff have been asked to try to keep their budgets at 2018 levels.
“We don’t have the budget for additional services on top of what we are providing now,” Raftis said. He declined to outline their budget request.
Ross said when it comes to people in encampments the city has the “obligation to give them notice” but there is “a greater obligation” to make sure they are first offered whatever help is available.
Todd Orvitz, director of strategic and policy solutions, said the notices are not handed to people out of the blue.
“Streets to Homes staff are going to be out working with these people for a long period of time before the notices come out,” to determine what kinds of services they might need, he said. “They meet the clients where they are at.” That could include everything from helping them find shelter and transitional housing to reuniting them with family members, he said.
Raftis said some people move on right after a notice is given, others at the 14-day mark, in some cases the police are called and “then there is everything in between” and each case is handled differently.
With files from Francine Kopun
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar