TTC warming buses: Community aid or social concern?

As the frigid winds of winter swept through Toronto’s streets, five TTC buses quietly transformed into sanctuaries on wheels, offering warmth and refuge to the city’s homeless population overnight when traditional shelters reached capacity.

Last November, as Toronto’s homeless shelters stretched their limits, the Toronto Transit Commission started providing buses to be used as temporary shelters for the homeless population at Spadina and Union stations. They’re officially known as warming buses.

And while they serve a need, not everyone is convinced they’re a good idea.

According to the City of Toronto, on Oct. 1, 2023, the was sheltering 10,700 people. Of those approximately 9,000 people are in the shelter system, while approximately 1,700 people were living in bridging hotels and programs supported by the Canadian Red Cross.

“People who are suffering severe addiction withdrawal or mental health episodes or have nowhere else to go,” said TTC spokesperson Stuart Green in a recent interview with the Toronto Observer.

“First of all, our priority is to try and redirect them into a shelter space, but if there’s no shelter space available, that’s why we have the bus there.”

Green said there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the function of the buses.

“These are specially dedicated buses that are used only for this purpose,” he said. “We are not taking buses away from other services. So, these are not shuttle buses, they are not regular service buses, they have a different design inside and they are only used for this purpose.”

WATCH | TTC warming buses: community aid or social concern?

According to Green, the initiative started on Nov. 15, 2023, and will end on Apr. 15. The season is considered a “winter session” when the homeless population needs to stay indoors, such as in subway and bus stations, as a result of the cold weather.

According to Green, there are five buses in service on a nightly basis, which are used by about 40 people a night. At a peak point when it was extremely cold, there were seven buses and around 60 people overnight.

“It is around 10 people per bus. If we have high demand, we will bring a couple of extras. So, what it means is that we’re able to put people on buses but also give them a little bit of space to themselves, give them a bit of privacy as much as we can.”

A TTC operator on each bus to ensure it’s not left unattended; there are several staff on each bus between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Not intended as permanent solution

Green said this initiative was not intended as a permanent solution for homelessness.

“Everybody knows that if there are more shelter spaces available and ideally more permanent housing available, not just shelter space and more permanent housing for people to move into … those are the solutions ultimately to getting people off these shelter buses, out of sheltering in subway stations, out of city parks,” he said.

“You know that’s the way we’re not the experts in that. I don’t pretend to be. But we all know the answer is more permanent housing for people.”

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Toronto Shelter & Support Services, known as TSSS, co-operated with TTC in this program.

“They operated as support,” Green said, “They make sure that people are safe and comfortable and address any needs that they have, give them some food and make sure that they have access to any resources they might need.”

Milton Barrera, a spokesperson for TSSS, said the current condition of overcapacity in Toronto shelters is caused by multiple factors.

“We have an unprecedented demand for shelter space. People are trying to see there is more demand than we actually have space,” he said.

“It’s the cost of living, the mental health, the addictions, also the refugee claimants, and asylum seekers that are coming into this country that also need support. It is multiple contributing factors for this demand.”

Asked about future plans to address housing problems, Barrera said they are actively communicating with other departments of the city government.

“In addition to adding (shelter) spaces, we need to make sure there’s an exit, right? People are exiting the shelter,” he said.

“And in order to do that, we do need support and assistance from other levels of government and institutions to make us successful.”

Advocate voices concern

Cathy Crowe, a local street nurse and social justice activist, said that the warming bus is “one of the most alarming things” she had seen in her career.

“Buses can never, ever, ever be considered a shelter,” she said in an interview.

“They are used in severe emergencies such as a fire in an apartment building to keep people warm for a few hours until emergency shelter can be provided. TTC buses must never, ever be used again as shelter.”

She pointed out her concern about both the number of people who are using the buses and the human rights aspect around the standards.

“What’s worrisome now is that the city shelter division is not considering them (as) shelters, so they’re not accounting for the numbers or reporting to the public,” Crowe said.

“It also means that the city shelter standards, which are based on people’s basic human needs, to go to the washroom, to be able to lie down to sleep, to be able to have food … are not being met on the buses”

Crowe suggested that individuals have to express their thoughts to the city council because the city’s shelter system has “so many issues and it’s just gone silent.”

“Individuals and communities have to know who their city councillor is, who their MPP is and who their MP is. And they have to be writing them and pushing them and bugging them persistently. And that’s not happening. And politicians only respond when that happens.”

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Posted: Apr 20 2024 12:00 pm
Filed under: News