‘Screaming from the cold:’ Winter, COVID-19 leave homeless with tough choice

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TORONTO — Amy Finn hunted for a spot to sleep on the coldest night of the season on Monday.

She had been kicked out a few days earlier from a shelter hotel in downtown Toronto after a fight.

The shelters were full and she was too scared to go to one of two warming centres downtown. She tried to avoid congregate settings for fear of violence.

The 23-year-old was despondent.

“I’ve been really depressed,” Finn said. “I’ll be honest with you, I’ve gotten suicidal.”

She planned to find a parking garage to sleep in.

“If they kick me out of a parking garage, I’m just going to run to the next one,” Finn said.

Advocates have criticized the city’s winter plan for the homeless.

Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, said she and her colleagues tried to find spots in shelters for several people Monday.

She called the city’s central intake line to find a spot, but, for the first time in her experience, couldn’t get through to a human being on the other end.

“We are currently experiencing higher-than-usual call volumes and cannot answer your call at this time,” central intake said, according to a recording of the call made by Lam.

“Central intake is a 24-hour service, please call back at a later time so speak with an agent.”

The city said that message is new and activated when call volumes are high.

“We also had a number of staff away on Monday due to various reasons, including exposure to COVID-19,” the city said. “We have since redeployed staff to help with central intake, which has helped to alleviate this pressure.”

As of Tuesday, there are 317 people with COVID-19 in the shelter system and 48 active outbreaks, according to Toronto data.

“It’s a difficult choice: come inside and risk catching COVID or stay outside and freeze,” Lam said.

Outbreaks usually mean the sites won’t allow new referrals, Lam said.

The city said an outbreak doesn’t necessarily mean shelters are closed to new admissions, but it can lead to that.

“Given the need for emergency shelter and the cold weather, our priority and all efforts are being dedicated to ensure access to safe indoor spaces for people in need,” the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration said in an email.

The city said it is experiencing “significant demand” for emergency shelter.

“The system is at or near capacity most nights,” the city said.

On Monday night, there were 7,436 people in Toronto’s shelter system, according to the city’s daily census.

The city said there are times when people call and no beds are available that suit their needs.

“If this is the case, we ask the client to call back or staff can call them back as capacity is fluid,” the city said.

The city opens four warming centres during “extreme winter weather” where people can eat snacks and use the washroom.

The city said it is “working with partners to explore options to increase space, while also balancing the availability of staff and other required supports to ensure the safe and effective operation of sites.”

The city said it has opened 325 new indoor spaces since the fall and there is capacity for 165 people at its warming centres.

Lam said it’s just not enough.

“There are a lot of people outside with nowhere to go,” she said.

As for Finn, she survived the night when the temperature hit a low of -19C, according to Environment Canada. She hopes to find another room in a shelter hotel.

For now she’ll continue what she’s been doing.

She’ll hang out in malls until security gives her the boot and, if she has the money, will ride the subway for a while to warm up.

“Sometimes I’ll take the subway up to Vaughan and sleep in the bus shelter there because it’s usually empty,” she said. “I’m really not too worried about COVID, I’m worried about the cold.”

There are plenty of nights in the last month where she’s slept outside.

“I’ve been waking up by hearing people screaming and realizing it was myself screaming from the cold,” Finn said.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press