Supporting Clients through Winter and COVID-19

Supporting Clients through Winter and COVID-19

On February 9th and 11th, 2021, housing professionals from across Toronto gathered in a series of Community Conversations to collectively discuss the needs of clients facing housing precarity/inadequacy, the challenges faced in the housing sector during a COVID-19 winter, and the resources available for supporting clients through winter months.  

Together, housing professionals shared services available at their own agencies, discussed shifts and changes to service provision, and identified strategies and approaches to facing the challenges of this winter. By identifying the needs of clients and the gaps that exist in services that meet those needs, participants engaged in an effort to share strategies and ideas for support.  

The conversations identified the consistent and ongoing needs that communities faced with housing precarity/inadequacy or experiencing homelessness share. Participants identified that folks without housing security were in particular need of:  

  • Housing Help Services  
  • Financial Supports  
  • Food provision, including free or low-cost hot meals and hot beverages 
  • Access to bathrooms with hot water 
  • Access to showers  
  • Access to internet and the devices required to connect online  
  • Access to telephone services  
  • Transportation access, including transit tokens, rides, and pre-paid presto passes  
  • Shelter beds  
  • Mental health supports  
  • Warm clothing, socks, blankets  
  • Clean water  
  • More warming locations for extreme cold weather  
  • More supports for encampments, and reduced policing in encampments  
  • Readily available harm reduction supplies  

Participants discussed the challenges that are shared across the sector by folks accessing services, and by service providers themselves. The most common challenges identified were:  

  • Self-care and secondary trauma for service providers  
    • Service providers are stretched thin and it is challenging to prioritize their own mental health and well-being.  
    • Service providers are simultaneously experiencing the collective trauma of this pandemic and feeling called to increase supports offered, to the detriment of their own mental health.  
  • Discrimination and stigmatization 
    • Private market landlords still uphold discriminatory practices housing folks who are marginalized. 
    • Some housed residents in areas where temporary shelter have been created either by the City (in the case of Roehampton) or by the community itself (in the case of encampments) have made complaints that have resulted in dislocation by unhoused residents.  
  • Housing market remains unaffordable   
    • People are struggling to find housing, or struggling to maintain the housing they have found. Employment losses and limited access to viable employment, combined with limitations of income supports, have made evictions consistent and threatening to housing stability for many community members.  
  • Tech accessibility  
    • Access to devices is necessary for surviving a COVID-19 winter, but cost is a barrier to obtaining devices for those in need, and a barrier for providing devices for service providers. Increased funding to provide organizations with devices to give to service users is needed.  
    • Many services are offered online, and the internet remains an expensive and private offering. Locations with wifi access (like libraries, Tim Horton’s, McDonalds, etc) are closed, so communities have no way of accessing the internet  
  • Mental Health  
    • Critical mental health issues persist, but free mental health services remain limited, and some services remain closed due to the pandemic (some detox centers and drop-in mental health supports) 
    • Online resources are available, but rely on access to tech and internet, which many unhoused or precariously/inadequately housed community members do not have  
  • Physical health  
    • Many clients do not have a regular physician for maintaining physical health, and can only access emergency services. Many clinics are limiting appointments to emergencies.  
  • Shelter capacity and safety  
    • There are not enough beds in the shelter system to provide safe indoor spaces to unhoused residents of Toronto.  
    • Shelters are difficult to social distance in, and COVID outbreaks in the shelter system cause uncertainty and risk. Many community members would prefer to live in encampments where they are able to have isolated, socially distanced, and private dwellings in tents or temporary structures.  
    • Shelters and hotel beds have had restrictions that have proved challenging for service users, and many unhoused people with pets have reported challenges and issues with keeping their pets, preferring encampment residency.  
  • Encampment supports are limited, and encampments remain a violation of city bylaws 
    • Limited indoor spaces are consistently full, access to indoor spaces (libraries; Tim Horton’s; McDonalds) is closed; face-to-face supports is high risk and so reduced; encampments continue to be cleared.  
  • Service reduction 
    • Drop-ins are limited to unhoused service users, creating a gap in access for folks who are housed but rely on drop-in services for meals, socializing, and computer/tech access.  
    • Face-to-face services are reduced, limiting ability of service providers to build rapport and trust with service users.  
    • Food provision services saw an increased level of donations at the beginning of the pandemic, but the donations have tapered and it is challenging to continue to provide hot meals during the winter months  
  • Volunteer support decreased 
    • With COVID restrictions and ongoing emergency measures, programs that have relied on volunteer supports have not been able to keep up with demand due to capacity constraints of the lack of volunteers.  
  • Warming locations are limited  
    • There are only four warming locations in the city  
    • There is transportation between the warming centres, but there are no other pickup locations for residents seeking warming spot during extreme cold weather  

The participants also shared expert insight into some strategies that could be helpful for community members experiencing homelessness, or who are inadequately housed:  

  • Government supports and government relations  
  • The province, City, and federal governments need to work more closely together to ensure affordable housing options.  
  • More coops need to be built by the Federal Government. 
  • The City could rent condos where vacancy rates have risen during the pandemic. 
  • Income supports are not enough, and now some clients are facing punitive measures against accessing CERB while on social supports  
  • Supports are offered online, but there is not enough effort to provide the tech required to access them. 

Identified Services and Supports: 

Organization Services and Opportunities for Supports  
Hope + Me  
  • Peer support group for frontline workers that meets every 2nd Friday at 1pm  
Scarborough Housing Stabilization Planning Network (SHSPN) 
  • Partnerships in the Scarborough area 
  • Furniture  
  • Food bank for clients  
  • Winter clothing  
  • Early On program  
Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities  
  • 2-week supply of food (with Halal option) for folks who are COVID positive and living in the Scarborough area  
  • Community Outreach COVID-19 Health Equity Project 
  • Cooked meals, with vegetarian options 
  • Pop-up COVID testing in Scarborough
Street Health at Dundas and Sherbourne 
  • Updated food bank locations  
  • Drop-in nursing services twice a week  
  • Nurse practitioners on site  
  • ID Clinics  
  • Overdose prevention site  
Inner City Health Associates  
  • Nursing support in downtown encampments (from Carlaw to Dufferin)  
  • Outreach and direct support, with a physician  
  • Support in shelters  
  • Some COVID recovery sites 


  • Outreach van providing hot meals, essential clothing and hygiene supplies 
  • Partnerships with health support services and shelters  
  • Meal box program (currently on hold)  
  • The Ve’ahavta Skills Academy (VSA), a free nine-week intensive digital program that provides training and support in the areas of essential skills and career exploration, in partnership with George Brown College. 
  • The Building Foundations for Women (BFW) program, is a free nine-week intensive digital program that provides training and support for women facing socio-economic, immigration, and/or mental health challenges. 
Furniture Bank 
  • Phone ahead of time 
  • Home deliveries will resume by July 6th 
  • Accepting corporate donations only at this time 
  • May offer virtual tours in future 
 Still doing some deliveries 
  • Can’t go and look at furniture 
  • No option for pick-up 
  • Flat rate for delivery of furniture 
Alternative options: 
  • Habitat for Humanity has furniture on website 
  • YWCA 
  • For Women, interest free loans for furniture when moving into a new place 
Toronto Public Libraries 
  • Internet connectivity kits provides vital connections for by equipping people with a free laptop and WiFi hotspot with four months of unlimited data. Participants will keep the laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot at the end of the program.  
  • When open, access to bathrooms and washrooms, and provision of referrals to community services  
  • Provides compilatory presto pass card (unfilled) 
  • Digital access library card to get immediate access to Toronto Public Library’s digital resources and services.  
  • Digital programs and classes, available online  
  • 9 TPL food banks  
  • WIFI on wheels: TPL bus travelled around to Northwest areas to provide free WIFI as a pilot in the summer, may continue  
  • TPL care kits: – folks picking up their collections can ask for a personal care kit (soap, shampoo, hygiene products) 
  • Senior tech help – for vulnerable seniors who are isolated to help them learn to use tech for connection 
Frontier College  
  • Strengths-based literacy programs that provide financial literacy, tech literacy, and basic skills  
  • Tech literacy is available, but dependent on participants owning their own devices  
Native Child and Family Services 
  • Rent Smart certified staff providing training on housing skills and tenant rights, and coaching on meeting with landlords and going to viewings  
  • Shelters for Indigenous men and woman call 416-969-8510. 
  • Youth location to help Indigenous Youth to find housing, by appointment only 
  • Food Hamper Services (once per week) for Indigenous youth and families. Call 416-969-8510. 
  • Mental Health Services 
  • Holistic referrals to Mental Health Services for youth. Or they can refer to Anishnawbe Health Toronto. 
  • Art Program for Indigenous people involved. They will deliver art supplies and support the client to participate online. 
Stella’s Place  
  • Mental health services and programming for youth age 16-29 
  • Drop-in virtual counselling on Thursdays from 3-6pm 
Toronto Drop-In Network 
Bounce Back Ontario  
  • Free skill-building program managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) designed to help people aged 15+ manage low mood, mild to moderate depression and anxiety, stress or worry, delivered over the phone with a coach and through online videos. 
Chalmers Bot Requires a computer. Provides regularly updated services available near you through map, including:  
  • Emergency shelter 
  • Food  
  • Clothing depots 
  • Drop-ins open 
Mind Beacon  
  • Free mental health support for Ontario residents dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. 
Native Women’s Resource Centre Offering: 
  • Online Counselling 
  • Support Line 
  • Support Email 8AM-12AM 
Good Sheppard Ministry 
  • Foodline outside, 24/7 
  • Emergency clothing  
  • Emergency shelter/hotel location  
  • Pre- and Post- drug treatment program (recovery program)  
Madison Community Services  
  • Food Security Program delivers fresh food boxes, prepared meals and groceries to clients who have physical disabilities or other barriers to shopping.  
  • Purchased cell phones for clients who did not have phones to connect with their case managers and laptops for clients who are at high risk and require a higher level of contact through video case management sessions. 
  • Social-recreation workshops to our clients by video such as yoga, dance, and cooking sessions. 
  • The Pathways To Home Program, designed to address the critical lack of 24/7 intensive on-site high support housing for long-term users of the shelter system who have complex mental health and/or developmental disabilities as well as physical health challenges. 
Red Door Shelter  
  • Winter survival kits  
  • Moving support program  
  • Food Bank 
Rogers  Connected for Success Program:  
  • Partnership Agreement for Low-cost internet access available to clients of partners.  
Telus Social Impact Program  
  • Internet for Good program offering high speed broadband internet to qualified low-income families for only $9.95 per month. 
  • Tech for Good offers people with disabilities customized technology solutions to help them live more independently.  
  • Health for Good enables TELUS mobile health clinics to bring primary healthcare directly to people in need who are unhoused. 
RC Tech Outreach 
  • The RCTech OUTREACH program and the Computers for Schools+ program provide qualifying students, individuals and families with affordable renewed computers, ready to use software and learning modules all in one package.  
  • Nonprofits that provide services to students, individuals, and families may qualify to participate in their program to help clients access affordable technology, by becoming a program partner. 
Free Geek Toronto 
  • A technology reuse social enterprise that works with partners to provide low-cost computers to increase digital inclusion in Toronto. 
  • Accepts donations of old laptops which they refurbish for their program partners.  
  • Providing virtual OW Caseworkers through WebEx in shelters for people without phones  
  • OW is not currently requesting documentation for folks with no fixed addresses  
  • MDOT Team (to discuss a potential referral, please call Streets to Homes at 416-338-4766 or the M-DOT office at 647-777-0130). They can often find rooms for people who are homeless. If there is a homeless client, they will go out to the client. 
  • Housing Stabilization Fund has increased to allow clients up to $1,600 in one year, so they can acquire it twice per year. 
  • The City of Toronto is partnering with community agencies to connect residents to resources, services, programs, and support during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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