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ROAD HOME: What happens when all emergency housing beds are full?

May 1, 2024

Posted on: May 1st, 2024. By: Michael Braithwaite,, Original Article.

In his regular monthly column, Blue Door CEO explains what happens when, more often than not, shelters are full, and what you can do to help change the situation

To ensure everyone has a safe and affordable place to call home, our region, alongside the homelessness, housing and health sectors, is working harder than ever.

Unfortunately, the demand continues to far outpace the supply.

Despite our best efforts with new dollars being invested, new deeply affordable housing being developed, and the introduction of many new supports, there are times, more often than not, when all our emergency housing beds are full.

What happens when someone can’t find a safe bed for the night?

If they call the York Region Central Intake Line, the team will work with them to find somewhere safe for the night and connect them to an outreach worker the next day.

However, some will not like the options put forward to them, and others may not call at all. So, what happens then?

I’ve talked to many members of the Blue Door team and other frontline heroes about this, and this is what they’ve shared.

In the warmer months, many individuals will set up outdoors as there is so much green space to disappear into in our region. For some, staying in emergency housing has not been a positive experience, or they may not feel safe, so they’ll stay outdoors, where they might feel safer.

When there is more than one person setting up camp in an area for a longer period, it becomes known as an encampment. Since the pandemic, and with the rising cost of living, the number of encampments and people living in them has grown at a rapid rate.

Others may seek shelter on a friend’s couch, often referred to as couch surfing, for as long as they can, something that is common among youth experiencing homelessness. Recently, we’ve seen an uptick in individuals who will stay up all night in fast-food restaurants or hospital waiting rooms to stay safe and warm, and then find a drop-in centre to catch some sleep during the day.

Lastly, the many abandoned homes throughout the region are a refuge for our most vulnerable looking to escape the harsh elements of our climate, or to stay safe.

To state the obvious, these options are less than ideal. It really is a matter of survival, and when faced with homelessness, survival tactics are all our most vulnerable have.

They’ll make structures out of anything they can find and build fires or use propane tanks to keep warm. By doing these things, they pose a significant risk of potential fires, which is how many lives have been lost in Canada.

In an effort to keep safe, they will form communities in encampments to watch over each other. Emergency rooms will talk about many people experiencing homelessness sitting in waiting rooms to keep warm, and in a drastic measure, some will commit small crimes to have police take them in for the night and perhaps find them mental or physical health support.

Jesse Thistle, a bestselling Indigenous Canadian author, described doing exactly that in his impactful book, From the Ashes. He recalled committing a crime to receive shelter and health care to properly heal his broken ankle and keep clean.

What must happen for everyone in need of a safe and affordable place to call home to have one?

For the short term, we need to continue to open new hotel programs, as the region has started to do with its partners like Blue Door. We need to expand our seasonal programs, as homelessness doesn’t have a season, and continue to explore homelessness prevention programs like diversion and eviction prevention support.

For individuals living in encampments, we need to be taking a human rights approach when supporting them with their housing plan. Providing options for a safer, more affordable and permanent home, while making sure they also have access to water, food, toilets, medical care and wraparound supports, is crucial.

Long-term changes will require us to build and acquire deeply affordable housing. Blue Door’s new Housing for All Land Trust is a great example of how you can work to acquire property and housing that will remain deeply affordable in perpetuity to be used by service providers for their clients.

Blue Door also has a small house known as Kevin’s Place that sits on a large piece of property. To ensure we are making the most of this space, we are currently working to redevelop this housing program into 14 stacked townhomes instead, offering deeply affordable and supportive units.

Continued and expanded investment by the federal government will help to grow the supply of affordable housing. We need to expand the head lease program many housing providers are doing, where we rent housing in the community, and manage the homes with our clients at deeply affordable rates, long term. This creates the opportunity for individuals who don’t necessarily need 24/7 support to free up a bed for someone in need, while they are just looking for affordable housing.

Lastly, revisiting income support for our most vulnerable is key. Currently, individuals who are single receive just over $700 per month in support, far below what they require to cover basic living costs for things like food and housing. Remember that during the pandemic, $2,000 per month was the amount provided for Canadians to get by. During that time, use of food banks was lower as was the core housing need. Income matters.

What can you do as community members? Push all levels of government to take action. Creating deeply affordable housing needs to be a priority. To make a difference yourself, do something that will cost you nothing. Even small acts can change someone’s day and give them hope.

Be kind to one another, especially those you see experiencing hard times. A smile can make them feel human, seen, and gives them hope for better times ahead. Kindness can change everything.