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Prayer vigil renews call for Toronto to address homelessness crisis

A homeless man sleeps in a bus shelter, in Toronto, on Friday, March 11, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young A homeless man sleeps in a bus shelter, in Toronto, on Friday, March 11, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
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Faith leaders, advocates, and supporters will be gathering outside Toronto City Hall Tuesday afternoon as part of an ongoing call for the city do more to help unhoused residents this winter.

Organized by the Stone Soup Network, the silent interfaith prayer vigil for people experiencing homelessness will run from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

“With a polar vortex on its way this week, we are concerned for people’s safety,” organizers wrote in a news release.

Vigil organizers said they decided to organize today's event after the city closed warming centres last Friday.

Rev. Alexa Gilmour, left, Rev. Michelle Vos Roberts, and church youth creating vigil sign that people will be invited to write their prayers on for people experiencing homelessness.

In an email to CP24.com, the city said the weather had improved and the decision was made to stop new intakes at these sites. Clients already at the warming centres were allowed remain there “as staff worked with them to provide a referral to shelter or a respite site,” the city said.

Toronto opened four warming centres Monday night after Toronto’s Medical Officer of health Dr. Eileen De Villa issued an extreme cold weather alert earlier that day.

Tuesday’s gathering is being held on the same day that Mayor John Tory’s Executive Committee meets at city hall.

It also comes almost a month after a letter signed by more than 150 faith leaders was delivered to Tory and all city councillors demanding an emergency meeting to discuss solutions to this crisis. That meeting has yet to happen.

“With so many people asking for the emergency centres to stay open, more shelters spaces, and affordable housing, why isn’t the mayor responding?,” organizers asked in the release.

Since then, almost 1,700 residents, organizations, health care providers, and front line workers have emailed the mayor to ask for a compassionate response to preventing freezing deaths and injuries.

On Jan. 16, an advocacy group called Health Care Providers Against Poverty held a news conference that called on the city to immediately commit to raise the temperature threshold for opening the warming centres from minus 15 C to 0 degrees and keep them open from Sept. 15 to June 1.

The Toronto Board of Health met a short time later and voted overwhelmingly in favour of urging the city to keep its warming centres open 24/7 for the remainder of the winter season.

In a statement released following that meeting, a spokesperson for John Tory said that the mayor “supports a pragmatic approach based on the best advice from our city staff” when it comes to helping Toronto’s most vulnerable.

The spokesperson, however, noted that last year roughly half of the times that warming centres were opened it was done in the absence of an Extreme Cold Weather Alert, which is the automatic trigger for the opening of the centres.

“We rely on our professional city staff to open warming centres when they are needed, and frequently they open these locations ahead of public health officials declaring an Extreme Cold Weather Alert,” the spokesperson explained, adding that "while warming centres and shelters are lifesaving interventions in the short-term, fundamentally the solution to better overall health is in sustainable, affordable, supportive housing."

Toronto City Council is set to discuss the matter at its upcoming meeting in early February.

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