Death at encampment outside Dundas shelter signals urgent need for Peel to fund emergency housing
A recent death confirms a harrowing reality.
On November 14, an asylum claimant who was staying in an encampment outside Dundas Shelter in Mississauga was found dead. The Region says the cause of death is unknown, and the matter is being investigated.
“We cannot comment on the circumstances surrounding this death while the investigation is ongoing,” a spokesperson from the Region told The Pointer, and would not confirm whether foul play was involved or whether the individual had any pre-existing health conditions. Reports suggest the man may have died of carbon monoxide poisoning attempting to keep his tent warm, however no cause of death has been confirmed. Peel Regional Police did not respond to The Pointer’s request for comment.
“Our staff and partners are mobilizing to provide onsite grief counseling and mental health support to Dundas shelter clients, staff and those staying in encampments,” the Region’s spokesperson said. “We are also providing additional winter supplies for warmth, and basic necessities.”
Staff reported that Peel’s emergency shelters are currently 321 percent over-capacity, up from 247 percent reported by the Region at the beginning of October — a 30 percent increase in less than two months with numbers increasing daily.
Asylum claimants seeking a place to go have resorted to sleeping outside and setting up encampments next to the Dundas Shelter as they wait for space or overflow beds to open. The Pointer previously reported there are approximately 102 asylum-claimants living unsheltered outside Mississauga’s Dundas Street shelter, waiting for space. The Region has identified 128 encampments where small numbers of people are sheltering in close proximity this year, a 167 percent increase over 2022.
“Compared to other jurisdictions like Toronto, Waterloo and Hamilton, which have large encampments concentrated in a few locations, Peel’s encampments are relatively small, and exist in a variety of locations that are sometimes hidden from sight,” a regional report from October highlights.
Several recent reports to Regional council have detailed the alarming increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness and the immense strain it is placing on the emergency shelter system.
Peel’s shelter system has long been used to temporarily house asylum claimants who find themselves homeless while seeking refuge in Canada. Historically, according to the Region, asylum claimants have accounted for approximately five percent of Peel’s shelter population. In an alarming report, a September staff update to regional councillors revealed that asylum claimants accounted for approximately 57 percent of shelter occupants.
“The number of asylum claimants seeking emergency shelter in Peel started to surpass historical norms in the spring of 2023,” the report detailed. “Throughout the summer, the number of individuals and families seeking support increased dramatically, to levels never before experienced in Peel.”
Peel’s supportive housing crisis forced the Region to break its policy to never turn anyone away from a shelter. Sean Baird, Peel’s Commissioner of Human Services, told Council in July more than 300 people had to be turned away in the two weeks prior to the meeting due to over-capacity and running out of room in overflow spaces in local hotels. When shelters reach capacity, the Region usually places people in overflow accommodations.
The Region’s spokesperson confirmed there are currently 249 asylum claimant households staying in emergency shelters, 755 staying in overflow hotels and 187 asylum claimant individuals sleeping outside the Dundas shelter — a drastic increase from the 16 camped outdoors that were reported at the end of August. Since the beginning of October, 120 asylum claimants have been housed.
The Pointer previously reported that the province is predicting that this year alone, Ontario could receive more than 72,000 asylum claimants — nearly twice as many as last year.
Many municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area are facing sharp increases in asylum claimants that exceed shelter system capacity. The City of Toronto has reported approximately 4,000 asylum claimants in its shelter system, by far the highest number of any municipality in the province. As of mid-September, Durham was supporting roughly 170 claimants. York Region, the City of Hamilton, and Halton Region, among others, have fewer people from abroad currently seeking shelter.
“The affordable housing crisis has led to a record high occupancy rate in our emergency shelters,” the Region’s spokesperson told The Pointer. “The arrival of asylum claimants has exacerbated the crisis with unprecedented high demand with low supply.”
In October, regional councillors learned $42 million, at a minimum, will be needed next year to fund adequate overflow emergency shelter space, a staggering increase from just four years ago when Peel paid approximately $2.5 million for overflow hotel rooms. Aileen Baird, Director, Housing Services at the Region of Peel, previously told council that with winter around the corner, staff are actively working on a non-hotel solution, noting the current strategy of housing claimants in hotels is not sustainable. But the biggest challenge, she warned, is who’s going to fund it. Regional councillors have failed to use taxpayer revenues to cover needed affordable housing and shelter investments that municipalities are responsible for.
Yesterday, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown acknowledged the November 14 fatality, claiming “It’s beyond comprehension [that] we’ve allowed this to happen… we’ve just heard excuses,” he added. “We’re calling on our partners and other levels of government, particularly the federal government to help.” He made the claim a year after Brown ordered the eviction of people living in an encampment just north of downtown.
Brown’s lack of responsibility for a problem largely created by the type of financial policies he has aggressively pushed, refusing to expand municipal spending in critical areas, while pointing blame at the federal government, comes after five years as mayor. He has repeatedly frozen the budget in his city, limiting revenues to support social service programs, and, while sitting on regional council, he has failed to advocate for any meaningful investment into affordable housing or the shelter system.
His claim that this week’s fatality “is beyond comprehension” came after Brown and his regional council colleagues were repeatedly warned that a tragedy would likely occur.
A report by staff to regional councillors near the beginning of this year outlined the growing challenges. “Use of overflow hotels for shelter clients and refugees is growing. The team has experienced significant increases in workload. Yet with limited funds and spaces available to meet the demand, these measures are not sustainable."
The Brampton Mayor has sat on Regional council for the past five years while he and his fellow elected officials have repeatedly failed to adequately invest in local shelter spaces and affordable housing units. His demand of the federal government Thursday is a tired refrain from officials in Peel who have repeatedly placed the onus on upper levels of government to provide the funds to help those in need of housing assistance while failing to invest local tax dollars. Housing is the responsibility of municipalities, not Queen’s Park or Ottawa, although both higher levels provide grants to assist with funding needs. Peel councillors, however, have repeatedly failed to invest in adequate affordable housing and emergency relief through successive budgets.
Councillors have ignored advocates and survivors who have described the crisis in Peel.
“[For] 10 years, we've not seen any increases [in funding] to the community for the services,” Sharon Mayne Devine, CEO of Catholic Family Services Peel–Dufferin, the lead agency at the Safe Centre of Peel (SCoP), told regional councillors on July 6, when asking them for just $250,000 to maintain local shelter support for female survivors of intimate partner violence. “We’re barely keeping up in Brampton, how in the world are we going to expand?”
SCoP has seen a significant rise in the number of clients helped. Between 2021-2022, it served around 70 percent more clients than the year before. It is currently faced with rapidly rising demand, but with limited resources to serve the growing number of people seeking help from abusive situations at home.
SCoP needs more funds to keep current programs running, and also to save partnerships it is at risk of losing. Devine said the Region would have to step in with a pledge; requesting $250,000.
“I've had conversations with both the federal government and the provincial government and what they're saying to me is, ‘you know, we want to see all three levels of government investing’, and everybody is waiting for the first amount of money to be pledged and put on the table,” she said. “It's a small amount of money to start with, but it would be a very meaningful, impactful amount of money so that the next time I meet with the Province and they say ‘Hey, is Peel willing to put money on the table for this?’ I want to be able to say, ‘yes they are and this is how much money they've pledged and now we're waiting for you to match or double those funds.’”
The encampment outside the Dundas Shelter has been steadily growing in recent months.
Early in the year, a staff report revealed that in addition to housing 50 families a week in overflow hotels, refugees from Ukraine and other countries were being accommodated in emergency situations, with the number of contracts between private hotel operators increasing 113 percent.
This past spring, Queen's Park announced an additional $11.7 million for Peel to combat rising homelessness in the region. Baird, Peel’s head of human services, said the majority of the funding increase would be allocated to the Peel Street Outreach Program, emergency shelter services and direct delivery of permanent housing.
The Street Outreach program operates in partnership with community agencies “to provide support, advocacy, and referrals to help people with their basic needs.” The program is delivered directly to different encampment sites.
Baird said the funding would assist with expanding capacity over time.
Regional Councillors, including Brown, have for years ignored pleas from community agencies and residents who have implored Peel's local elected officials to expand the affordable housing and shelter budget. In December of 2021, when the proposed 2022 budget was being debated, council members heard a presentation from the Peel Alliance to End Homelessness (PAEH) which shared a bleak future for the Region. Through a recent study completed by the organization, PAEH found that without enhanced investment for affordable housing the region could see a 25 percent increase in people suffering chronic homelessness over the next year.
The warning went unheeded by Brown and his colleagues, as the Brampton mayor pushed for a budget freeze in his own city and demanded a similar approach for regional government.
They passed the Region’s 2022 budget without any further financial assistance advocates called for to address the exploding housing crisis.
Peel’s housing investment — approximately $141.9 million for 2022 including staffing — offered little hope for the almost 30,000 households that were on the subsidized waitlist at the time, a number that had doubled from 14,997 at the end of 2019.
The net expenditure for housing support in the 2018 Peel Region budget was $115 million. Five years later, the approved 2022 budget for housing support was $141.9 million, while the housing crisis reached emergency levels and while the Region had to abandon its entire ten-year strategy from 2018 to 2028 for affordable housing and shelter expansion, called Home For All, because regional councillors refused to fund the program they themselves had approved.
To put the funding levels for housing and shelter support into perspective, for the 2024 regional budget, councillors just signalled approval for a 14-percent hike in the Peel Police operating budget for 2024, an increase of $74.5 million mostly to hire new officers.
More than a dozen critical staff reports over the last six years have outlined the dire housing and shelter situation and recommended immediate action to help confront the crisis.
PAEH estimates about 90,000 people in Peel are in need of core housing, meaning their current living situation is either unsafe or far beyond affordability. Its study also concluded 14,977 people are at risk of becoming homeless, 2,804 people need transitional housing and about 700 are chronically homeless each year.
A report by regional staff two years prior to the pandemic showed councillors the need for responsible budget decisions.
“The number of people accessing emergency shelters has been increasing, with a 26.9% increase from 2015 to 2016 and the current supply of emergency shelters in Peel Region can no longer keep up with the need,” it highlighted.
At the start of 2020, with Peel shelters continuing to operate far over capacity, there had barely been an increase in the number of spaces over the previous few years. In 2018, the Region's Family Shelter had 60 units (225 beds), the same number it had two years later. The Wilkinson Shelter had an increase of beds in August 2018 from 86 to 94 to compensate for a reduction in beds at the Cawthra Shelter, which went from 119 beds to 110. The Brampton Youth Shelter stayed steady at 40 beds, while Our Place Peel added 6 new emergency beds taking it from 14 to 20, for a total of 449 shelter beds currently in the region, compared to 9,000 in Toronto, which has approximately double Peel’s population.
In total, Peel’s 2018 shelter capacity was 245 standard beds, 14 transitional youth spaces and 60 family units (which have multiple beds). In 2019, that dropped by one bed to 244 standard beds, the same 60 family units, while Our Place Peel increased by six emergency beds. Rolling the youth and adult numbers together, Peel had a net increase of five shelter beds over approximately three years.
“The Region’s shelters have operated in overflow capacity since 2016,” Aileen Baird, Peel’s head of housing, told The Pointer at the time. “In the last two years we’ve had to operate in overflow more often, particularly in the Peel Family Shelter. This is happening because more people, especially families, are having to stay longer in the shelters due to the challenges they face in finding suitable affordable housing."
While Peel's councillors failed to expand shelter capacity, Toronto was adding large numbers of new beds, at least 400 in 2017, 1,000 in 2022 and 150 this year.
At the start of this year, Peel budgeted $4 million for shelter overflow space (along with $19.3 million for the whole shelter system). This was projected to meet only 75 percent of the actual need in Peel. The total cost of overflow space alone for 2023 was well above budget at approximately $26.9 million. Approximately $15 million of this is attributed to the increase in asylum claimants seeking assistance in Peel.
In hopes that some of the shelter costs for 2023 will be reimbursed, staff are now preparing a claim for federal funding under the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP) for 2023-2024, to assist with these costs, which are now $2.5 million per month. Staff have cautioned that while funding under IHAP will assist with growing costs, if no additional funding is confirmed, supporting asylum claimants will likely drive a 2023 deficit in the Region’s supportive housing service.
While the federal government is currently funding three hotels in Peel for refugees who arrived through irregular crossings, also known as in-land asylum claimants, it is not providing hotels for claimants who arrived in Canada as visitors and claimed asylum upon arrival, leaving Peel’s shelter system and overflow hotels overburdened as they support in-land refugee claimants who are not housed in federally funded hotels. This is happening while regional government data show community needs that were already exceeding capacity, are increasingly not being met.
In September, the provincial PC government announced it would allocate Toronto $26.4 million to provide urgent assistance to asylum-seekers as part of a $42 million federal fund to support communities across the province under the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit program. Of the $42 million announced, the province has said the Region of Peel will receive $2.1 million.
Peel’s precarious housing crisis is the result of a decade of inadequate funding by the Region’s elected officials who have repeatedly failed to plan and budget for not only emergency shelter space, but the creation of affordable housing units and rent subsidies to address the root of Peel’s housing problem. Meanwhile, the dire circumstances for more and more residents worsens every day.
An unprecedented number of asylum seekers at Peel’s emergency shelters has made the existing over-capacity even worse, leaving hundreds sleeping rough across the Region each night.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The waitlist for affordable housing assistance illustrates the lack of responsibility by Peel’s councillors. In 2019, the number of households waiting for assistance sat at 14,997. By the end of 2021, the number had nearly doubled to 28,227, an 88 percent increase in just two years. According to Regional data, which is in line with PAEH, there are 91,000 households in need of some form of core housing assistance in Peel, with approximately 73,710 households in precarious housing situations. Despite these alarming numbers signalling the need for greater funding and enhanced supports to meet the rapidly growing demand, a report in October revealed Peel is currently meeting only 19 percent of the community’s need for affordable housing.
With winter around the corner and the temperatures already beginning to drop below freezing at night, previous reporting from The Pointer has stressed the dire need for the Region to ramp up its emergency shelter response. Frigid nights, combined with hundreds of asylum claimants and houseless individuals sleeping shelterless every night, have created a worsening crisis that has already claimed one victim.
Peel is failing to adhere to its own “no turn away policy” which staff announced the Region had to break earlier this year. In July, Baird, the head of human services, told council that over 300 people had to be turned away in the span of two weeks because there was no more overflow space in local hotels.
In September, Baird, Peel’s housing director, told councillors the Region is turning away more than a couple hundred people from the shelter system a week. Many who are turned away can be seen camped a mere 20-feet outside the door of the same shelter.
“Because our shelters are at 321 percent capacity, some asylum claimants have turned to sleeping rough outside and setting up encampments,” the regional spokesperson told The Pointer Thursday. “We remain committed to securing more shelter both in and outside Peel Region. We are working closely with all levels of government, our community partners, and neighbouring municipalities to secure more beds and transport asylum claimants to these sites.”
Regional staff have previously told council that the people who are turned away are still provided with access to food, transportation, and referrals to other community supports such as food banks. At the time, staff believed current levels of demand would ease into the fall months, but that has not been the case.
“Peel’s Street Outreach team and Housing Services staff are making daily visits to encampments to provide additional winter supplies such as blankets and heaters,” the spokesperson explained. “They are receiving meals and other basic necessities. Newcomer groups have been established to provide trauma-informed and culturally appropriate counselling.”
For years, the upper-tier municipality has approved contracts with local hotels to keep people safe from the cold. Despite knowing this is not a sustainable solution, the Region has been unable to implement more permanent solutions as elected officials continue to blame other levels of government for their failure to fund housing and shelters.
Recognizing housing people in Peel’s hotel systems is not a sustainable solution to end the housing crisis, Peel staff have assured council they are working on a non-hotel solution.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
A September staff report acknowledged the need for a long-term sustainable program, stating “Increased demand for housing, settlement, social and health supports for refugee claimants is expected for the foreseeable future. Peel’s emergency shelter system was not designed to provide emergency shelter to international residents fleeing from war, violence, and other forms of persecution. A more appropriate, sustainable, and trauma-informed program is required, separate and apart from the shelter system to better meet the needs of this growing population.”
Recognizing the Region still has a responsibility to do its part, Mississauga Councillor Alvin Tedjo told the Region in October, “We can't wait for other levels of government to come to the table, we need to show leadership and we need to be there ahead of it.”
In October, after studying the feasibility of cabin-style, temporary modular housing in Peel to address the housing crisis and alleviate some of the burden being placed on Peel’s emergency shelter systems, staff recommended not to proceed with temporary modular housing, with the worry this temporary band-aid solution would become a permanent response, and instead recommended the Region explore higher quality, temporary modular units in Peel that are non-cabin style, connected to Peel’s water and wastewater system, as a way to expand the number of emergency shelter beds.
Staff noted this would begin with units at the Surveyor Family Shelter site for families and units at the Cawthra Road shelter site for individuals — both located in Mississauga — with the caveat of “should funding become available,” Aileen Baird noted, reiterating the Region does not currently have the funding available to oversee this project.
Approved plans are also in place to add 338 beds to Peel’s emergency shelter system by 2028 (186 of these are replacement beds). The Region has also proposed $6 million in 2024 for rental subsidies to help 300 to 400 households; $4 million in additional medical supports for those experiencing homelessness; and additional space for asylum claimants.
To address increases in homelessness as winter approaches, staff are also recommending other rapid solutions including: securing an alternate site outside of Peel’s emergency shelter system to support asylum claimants, establishing more homelessness respite/drop-in programs throughout the community, and investing more resources in subsidies and supports, which Baird previously noted is a “really fast way for us to overcome the supply constraints and move faster.” Staff will be making the request for more subsidies in the 2024 budget.
“Reducing homelessness and not just managing it requires more investment in homelessness prevention, and in permanent housing solutions, and I really can't stress this enough,” she told councillors.
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