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An Appeal To Humanitarian Aid Organizations: Our Communities Are Freezing to Death in Toronto

An urgent appeal from Maggie's Toronto and the Shelter and Housing Justice Network to: Doctors Without Borders, United Nations, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid and the Ontario Red Cross on January 31, 2022

We are a coalition of frontline workers from various health and social service organizations providing drop-in programming, harm reduction supplies, food and healthcare to unhoused communities through the pandemic. We are seeing an increase in homeless deaths both outside and inside of the shelter system. People are freezing to death on Toronto streets. We are alarmed at the death of someone who died from hypothermia in a hospital emergency room as reported in The Star on January 29. We’re also seeing the impact of the overdose crisis in our shelter system, with many dying in isolation without access to proper care and support. Toronto’s shelter system has collapsed.

It is clear to us that people can not access shelter because the system is full. Internal City data shows that people were turned away every night even before the current crisis. The emergency family shelter system is at 100% capacity; the emergency adult system is 98.3% full and the Warming Centre’s are 100% full, so there are functionally, no spots (data from January 27).

For those who can access the shelter system, the conditions inside are perilously unsafe. Our community members report food insecurity and inadequate support and accommodation for disabled people. Amid a global pandemic, there is no reliable access to PPE or rapid testing. As of January 28th, 31 shelters were in outbreak. The Recovery Isolation Hotel site for people who are unhoused and COVID positive, was downsized from a capacity of 160 to 60 spaces and is underutilized. The City has agreed to increase with an additional 60 rooms to a total of 120 which remains less than adequate. The City told shelters to plan to isolate people who were COVID positive in situ and this resulted in huge infection rates. We know that many people who are sick with COVID have been forced to sleep outside because of these policies. Vaccination rates remain much lower than the general population: only 76% of shelter residents have had a 1st dose, 65% a 2nd dose, and only 13% have gotten a booster shot.

It is no surprise that in such poor working conditions, there are signs of staff shortages due to COVID infection and burnout as well. As such, staffing and support in the system are weakened, and shelters are relying on students and inadequately trained or prepared contract workers to do the skilled work of care.

We recognize that this humanitarian crisis happens amidst a widespread health care system collapse: This month the paramedics union called a Code Red in Toronto signaling no available ambulances to respond to emergency calls. The Chair of the unit representing paramedics says our healthcare system is on “the verge of collapse.” We also believe our shelter system has collapsed. We estimate around 10,000 people are unhoused in Toronto, and deaths related to extreme weather conditions, overdose, starvation and inadequate medical care will only continue to rise.

Our organizations have asked the City to intervene in this crisis many times. In May 2021 the Toronto Shelter-Hotel Overdose Action Task Force audited the shelter hotel system’s overdose prevention strategy and issued thorough recommendations about how to avert the crisis. These were largely ignored. From January to September of 2021, 46 people died of an overdose in the shelter system. In October, the SHJN issued a winter plan highlighting uninhabitable conditions of Toronto shelters and prepared action plans for the City to proactively address the need for shelter in the winter months. Instead, the City has continued to downplay the rate of homeless deaths and COVID outbreaks in our shelter system and ignore our calls for intervention while misrepresenting the capacity of shelters.

In the absence of tangible support from the City, we have relied on crowdfunding campaigns to provide our communities with key resources to stay alive. The Toronto Prisoners Rights Project has raised just over $100,000 to purchase emergency supplies like tents, sleeping bags, and clothing, but these funds will not last longer than a month and the need for emergency winter supplies is only growing. Our crowdfunding efforts cannot keep up with the rate of death we’re seeing in community, and in the absence of meaningful help from the City of Toronto, we are making a direct appeal to international aid organizations including Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and The United Nations to partner with us directly to provide humanitarian aid to our communities.

We are asking for direct support vaccinating our communities and getting humanitarian aid to local shelter residents, encampments, strolls and precariously housed communities we serve. To effectively meet the need we need:

  • Your expertise in mass humanitarian relief efforts to provide assistance to the City of Toronto including: staffing and volunteers who can provide direct service and support in emergency existing and new shelters and warming centres

  • 450,000 KN95’s and N95’s to distribute

  • 450,000 Rapid Antigen Tests

  • 5,000 winter-resistant tents

  • 15,000 weather-resistant sleeping bags and sleeping mats

  • 15,000 weather-resistant sleeping pads

  • 100,000 handwarmers

  • 15,000 winter jackets, weather-resistant gloves, water-resistant boots and extreme weather gear (ski pants, long johns, inner-layer thermals, etc.)

  • 10,000 large backpacks

  • Assistance with the establishment of a field hospital for additional COVID recovery and isolation.

Our coalition has coordinated a network of supply drop-off locations for humanitarian aid equipment across the city where we are able to receive supplies, coordinate outreach efforts and provide direct support to our community. We are requesting your support in acquiring the supplies above and assisting us in coordinating further humanitarian relief efforts to address the ongoing situation in our shelter system and on Toronto streets.


Shelter and Housing Justice Network

Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project

If your organization would like to sign on to our call for humanitarian aid, please email us at to be added to the list of signatories.

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