Between March and August, the City of Toronto leased hotels and apartment buildings to house more than 1,570 homeless individuals and implemented various strategies to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 within the homeless community. Residents of Toronto neighbourhoods such as Yonge-Eglinton found themselves living side by side with formerly homeless people and families — and they were vocal in their criticism, even organizing protests. COVID-19 has heightened the city’s not-in-my-backyard attitudes: but this gives us an opportunity to come to terms with our past and find a way forward, as income inequality is rapidly becoming an issue we can no longer ignore.
NIMBYism involves objecting to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or potentially dangerous in one’s own neighbourhood. Toronto, often referred to as a “city of neighbourhoods,” has some of the most active, outspoken, and fiercely protective residents. In the past, they have voiced opposition to everything from bus garages to methadone treatment centres. Tightknit communities across the GTA fight to preserve the unique characteristics of their neighbourhoods, making them a source of pride and a rallying point. But this same vocalness has kept certain neighbourhoods insular, slowing the establishment of the infrastructure and resources needed to support all of Toronto’s residents, including its most vulnerable.
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As COVID-19 rocked the world, and municipalities grappled with containing the virus, fears about the accelerated spread of this virus among the city’s 7,000 homeless — combined with a lack of adequate medical resources — prompted the City of Toronto to lease more than 100 hotels and apartment buildings with the intent of relocating homeless people.
Among these buildings are two apartments located in the affluent Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood. Since May, the twin apartment buildings, located on Broadway Avenue, just north of Eglinton, have housed up to 150 formerly homeless individuals. Even before the pandemic, homelessness was a rapidly growing issue: the city’s actions in response to COVID-19 could have been applauded. Instead, some local residents were outraged: they cited safety concerns and alleged there’d been an increase in crime — stabbings, public defecation, syringes found on school property. A Facebook page was created, giving thousands of local residents a place to congregate online and air their concerns. But it didn’t stop at social media: on August 15, a group of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against the temporary housing program. They were met by counter-protesters there to show their support for it: the two groups were separated by a line of police. This all took place near the Roehampton Hotel, the third Yonge-Eglinton site being used to temporarily house some of Toronto’s homeless.
While the city signed a two-year lease for the hotel, the other two apartment buildings were vacated at the end of August, as per the agreement with the developer, which is preparing to demolish the buildings. As the city’s temporary housing plan winds down, the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration Division, in partnership with the United Way of Greater Toronto, developed and released an interim shelter-recovery strategy. It contains lessons learned and recommendations that, if accepted by council, will guide community partners and agencies in developing solutions over the next 12 months. The report also includes plans for permanent solutions and addresses Indigenous and Black homelessness.
The plan is ambitious — and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, it took the coronavirus to bring the city’s homelessness issue to the forefront. But now that it’s here, Torontonians have the opportunity to put aside any concerns or prejudices and support the city’s most vulnerable citizens. It they do, perhaps a new Toronto will emerge. One that is less divided along class lines and better able support social and economic mobility. One where everyone has a chance to thrive.