Shelter “Option” For Tenters Pressures An Emergency Shelter System That Is Already Full

house nestled in metre high snow banks
March in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where emergency shelters are unable to accommodate all the people who are homeless.

How many homeless can dance on the head of a pin? This philosophical question about angels suits current homelessness practices in many cities. Bogus public relations spin-the-bottle exercises point over and over again at the same shelters as a solution to this or that homelessness problem.

Has this pretence of shelter availability any true practical value? COVID has demonstrated otherwise. In this pandemic, “Everybody In” (to use the UK’s name for its program to manage community and individual health and safety for people experiencing homelessness during COVID) quickly demonstrated that local shelters everywhere cannot begin to cope with an “In” for “Everybody.” The result has been the temporary usage of all kinds of spaces, in many cases with “In” being stretched to “Inn,” with pandemic-emptied hotels and motels featuring prominently.

Even in non-COVID times there have been well-meaning (if hopeless) attempts to make local shelters a one-size-fits-all solution. For example, an ambitious 2015 winter program in Portland, Oregon was eventually cancelled. That city’s commitment to provide beds for all comers pulled a plug that sent ripples far and wide, threatening to drain a region’s, if not a nation’s, homeless into a single local shelter system1.

With the pandemic fading (or at least a public and official perception that it is fading, regardless of the truth of the matter) we are seeing a return to this casual PR spin-the-bottle that inevitably points to an inadequate local shelter system.

And just who will be displaced in order to fulfill such a promise? Aside from being inaccurate, it’s all too conveniently small scale to imagine that all people who experience homelessness are vagabonds sleeping in shop doorways, or in little tents cluttering sidewalks or park land.

It’s important to realize that the local shelters in cities and regions are also serving a broader need than those of tent city displacement.

One example: these days shelters are home to regularly employed individuals whose earnings simply cannot support them, and sometimes their families. Would these shelter users be bounced out to admit more(?) deserving tenters? The housing crisis is such that children are growing up and attending school for years, with their only home a public shelter2.

Another strain on local shelters: hospital patients who are discharged with no home to go to3.

And just recently, another group of citizens are being added. Explore this problem in Thunder Bay, Ontario at the CBC: Transitional housing needed for homeless people being released from custody

So, now we’ve got people from encampments, employed folks who can’t afford to pay rent, and people being discharged from hospitals and correctional facilities all showing up for a space in the local emergency shelter.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, along with many others, can be excused for believing the new year 2021 heralded the end of the pandemic. A fourth wave is dashing those hopes for all of us, Tory included.

He cannot be so readily excused for a resumption of high-handed business-as-usual harassment of the poor by clearing tent encampments with battalions of police4. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that tent encampments are best served by allowing them to shelter in place. Shouldn’t this kind of thinking continue to rule the day5?

Nor, in the face of some 80,000 plus families in Toronto on the waiting list for truly affordable (public) housing, can Tory be excused for touting the shelter system as a pathway to permanent housing. But he has done just that recently6.

There exists no such meaningful pathway at this time and Mayor Tory knows it. He, along with other local government leaders in Canada, have been publicly calling for more permanent housing that is affordable, more housing with supports and more transitional housing, all as part of a strategy to end homelessness. There has been some response from higher orders of government, but much, much more is needed. You can read more about the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ prescription for the homelessness crisis here: Affordable Places to Live


  1. Try: Portland’s Local “Right To Shelter” Couldn’t Drain A National Ocean Of Homelessness
  2. Try: Kids Desperately Need A Housing Insecurity Blanket
  3. Try: Where Does A Hospital Discharge You To When You’re Homeless?
  4. Try: Toronto Tries To Dignify Kicking Homeless Ass And Taking Names
  5. Here is link to the CDC‘s current recommendations concerning tent encampments: Interim Guidance on People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness
  6. See this interview on the clearing encampments at TVO: Clearing Homeless Encampments

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