Ontario is facing a homelessness crisis that is leading to profound and devastating impacts on our communities. On December 12, 2022 the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a statement on the need to protect and uphold the rights of people experiencing homelessness and living in temporary shelters and encampments.
As the crisis continues into the winter season, the OHRC echoes concerns raised by local public health units, health care workers, faith leaders and advocates about the significant lack of cold weather services in Toronto, and across the province, for people experiencing homelessness.
When a person has nowhere to go in inclement weather, this can result in tragic outcomes such as the loss of a limb or freezing to death. These outcomes are preventable. Even moderate temperatures, especially when coupled with rain or snow, can be life-threatening if you are unsheltered.
The importance of respecting the rights of people experiencing homelessness was reaffirmed by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on January 27 when it denied the municipality of Waterloo’s request to remove an encampment when there is no adequate indoor shelter space as it would violate the residents’ Charter rights to life, liberty, and security of the person. The court concluded that “… the ability to provide adequate shelter for oneself is a necessity of life that falls within the right to life protected by section 7 of the Charter.”
Policies and programs designed to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness must be grounded in human rights-based approaches and delivered with respect and compassion.
People experiencing homelessness are disproportionately members of groups and communities who have experienced historic and ongoing systemic discrimination. Governments at all levels must work to limit the ongoing effects of this discrimination. Keeping members of our community from freezing to death on the streets is part of that essential work.
In its August statement concerning access to cooling centres for people experiencing homelessness during extreme heat waves, the OHRC noted it was a human rights issue and urged the government to act to ensure people’s rights were upheld. The OHRC urges the provincial government, District Social Services Administration Boards (DSSABs) and municipalities across Ontario to uphold the rights of people experiencing homelessness and adequately fund and provide enough indoor spaces around-the-clock for anyone seeking shelter, either in warming centres or in community spaces.
 Researchers in Ontario have found that the majority of hypothermic events for people experiencing homelessness occur when the minimum daily temperature is warmer than −15 °C, the current threshold for opening warming centres in many municipalities. This finding is consistent with previous reports that cold weather injuries occur in the general population during low (>0 °C) and moderate (0−13°C) cold stress, in addition to high-cold stress.