Physical distancing rules under COVID-19 have doubled the cost of operating shelter beds across Toronto, leaving roughly a third of shelters no longer viable, according to a new report.
More than 30 sites have been identified so far for possible redevelopment into permanent or transitional housing, which would be cheaper to operate, ensure proper distancing and move longer-term residents out of the emergency system, according to the report from the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) and United Way of Greater Toronto.
The report, called the COVID-19 Interim Shelter Recovery Strategy, says creating a redevelopment plan for no-longer-viable shelters and respites should be a priority for the next 12 months.
The report goes before the city’s planning and housing committee next week, and then to city council Sept. 30.
Before COVID, the average cost to operate a shelter bed in Toronto was more than $40,000 a year, compared with roughly $24,000 annually for a supportive housing unit. The average cost to run a shelter bed has since doubled, with capacities reduced because of pandemic measures.
So long as physical distancing is required, the report estimates the city could save about $15 million a month if it moved 3,000 shelter residents into supportive housing — without even taking into account how much it would also reduce costs in other areas like health care.
“Given the costs of running a shelter bed under COVID conditions have now exceeded the cost of housing people significantly, it made sense for us to think about ‘here’s a bunch of infrastructure that we don’t have to buy,'” said Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of SSHA.
Bedard noted that operating money was already attached to sites that may have been made non-viable by COVID-19, and that rent could further offset the costs of the supportive units.
The repurposed facilities would be aimed at individuals with high-support needs, who weren’t identified as suitable for rapid rehousing efforts during COVID-19.
All the facilities so far noted as nonviable are shelters, Bedard said, and the assessment only considered a facility’s financial standing, after their capacity was cut by the virus.
SSHA still has to determine whether any respites can also be repurposed, and whether the configuration of any sites makes them non-viable due to an inability to maintain distancing.
Several Toronto shelter and outreach workers said they supported the goals in Tuesday’s report. “Congregate shelter settings have never been particularly dignified, have never been particularly safe,” said Diana McNally of the Toronto Drop-In Network.
Front-line shelter worker Tommy Taylor said he, too, was happy with the “philosophy” of repurposing non-viable shelter and respite facilities. His main concern, he said, was follow-through, since the city needed funds from other governments to turn its plan into a reality.
Over the next two years, the city hopes to create 3,000 permanent housing units, including 2,000 with support services, via modular projects, acquisitions, renovations and new portable Canada-Ontario Housing Benefits.
But it will need money from the province and Ottawa to make that happen — $726.5 million in 2020, plus continuing costs for future years.
The report calls for an acquisition strategy, to secure hotels, rooming houses, residential buildings and even office spaces to use as housing across Toronto.
Coun. Joe Cressy said Tuesday that talks with Ottawa about supporting that effort had been “very positive,” and the city hoped to see a formal announcement in the upcoming throne speech.
However, street nurse Cathy Crowe said she was disappointed the report didn’t commit to a one-person-per-room model for shelters.
Bedard said the city had no intention of continuing to use bunkbeds, which put residents in close quarters, but she said shelter users didn’t necessarily need their own rooms.
“You need to have low occupancy,” Bedard said. “It’s the air exchange for long periods of time. Creating the opportunity for people to maintain that distancing while in the shelter is what’s important.”