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TTC vehicles used for overnight stays as city’s system buckles under need, thrusting transit staff onto the front line of homelessness crisis


It’s 4:45 a.m. at Spadina Station, and Faith Lomas has just gathered her belongings and disembarked from a fluorescently lit TTC bus that’s been parked beside the station all night.

Her fiancé beside her in the quiet entrance to the station, and her cat Princess perched delicately on her shoulder, 19-year-old Lomas — who has been battling homelessness since she was 17 — is among the dozens of people who spent the night on a fleet of buses that served as a refuge from the sub-zero temperatures and dry and biting January air.

Now, as the city’s transit system reanimates and begins its morning routes, she and her fiancé are moving from one TTC vehicle to another. They join other occupants of the night buses trudging with bags slung over their shoulders or on their backs toward different buses or streetcars. Lomas would spend the day riding with no particular destination; to her, finding real shelter in Toronto feels out of reach.

“We just want to be warm,” Lomas said softly.

Here, at the intersection of two busy Toronto subway lines, is a picture of a city in dire straits. The city’s various safety nets — places such as shelters, respites and warming centres — are regularly packed to the brim, with hundreds of people turned away each night. In the face of overwhelming need and the winter chill, the city and the TTC have deployed these overnight shelter buses for months — up to five vehicles a night — to Spadina Station.

And each morning around 5 a.m., as many Torontonians remain asleep in their beds, a crowd moves directly from the overnight shelter buses to regular daytime routes, in a cycle of stopgap solutions. It’s a reality that has thrust transit staff onto the front line of the city’s homelessness crisis, and left social service workers questioning if this is really the city’s best option.

“It’s inhumane that this is considered acceptable,” said one streetcar operator who drives along the Spadina route. “At what point do we decide it’s time to start treating people like people?”

‘All available resources’

Already this winter, the TTC has counted more than 1,000 overnight stays inside its buses. The agency does not track unique visitors, so it does not know how many of those are from repeated occupants — individuals such as Lomas, who said this was her second night so far this winter relying on the TTC.

Russell Baker, a city spokesperson, said the shelter buses can each fit 10 to 15 people. The buses are staffed by regular TTC operators with support from city workers, who Baker identified as community safety ambassadors. According to the TTC, usage fluctuates based on the weather and shelter capacity, with up to 39 people turning to the nighttime buses on any given night.

Baker called the buses an example of “harnessing all available resources.” The plan was for the buses to be primarily used to transport people to warming centres or shelters, he added, but when nothing was available, they could act as their own shelter. But according to the TTC, in the 1,168 documented uses of the buses up to Monday, the lion’s share were overnight stays: 1,076 cases compared to the 92 cases where someone was transported elsewhere.

While the TTC keeps count of how many people use these buses, and provided this data to the Star upon request — with 31 people on board on Jan. 19, 37 people on Jan. 20, and 36 people on Jan. 21 — the city does not disclose this information in its regular public reporting of occupancy data for facilities such as its shelters, respites, drop-ins and warming centres.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green acknowledged the buses are far from an aspirational setup. “These are not ideal or permanent solutions, but we’re doing the best we can to assist at a time of great need,” Green said.

That need is evident in the city’s turn-away rates, with an average of 170 people per day being declined shelter space throughout the month of December.

As of 4 a.m. on Thursday, daily numbers show there were zero emergency beds available at men’s, women’s and coed shelters citywide, four available emergency youth beds and zero available warming centre cots.

While one woman on the early morning streetcar told the Star accessing washrooms while staying on the shelter buses was a challenge, Green said occupants should have access to port-a-potties outside the station.

For Lomas and her fiancé, there wasn’t much of an alternative. In the sub-zero temperatures, they said their other option would be to pitch a tent and make a bonfire somewhere.

On the morning the Star visited, several people relying on the transit system for shelter expressed their gratitude to have somewhere warm to stay. But, as Lomas pointed out, the overnight buses weren’t ideal.

“There’s a lot of bugs,” Lomas said, as the two listed a litany of hurdles to getting much sleep on board — from the limited hours to the bright lights and others using street drugs around them.

That morning, an elderly man came off the bus pushing a shopping cart full of his possessions and descended to the streetcar platform. Another man asked a Star reporter if they were a housing worker — or if they could find him one. Several people hauled bags wearily in the same direction as the man with the cart, joining a crowd of at least a dozen in the station.

Diana Chan McNally, a community worker who works with homeless Torontonians, said she has serious concerns with the bus shelters, which lack the standards and safety protocols of traditional shelters.

“These have none of the basic amenities of even our lowest quality spaces, which are warming centres. You know at least you’ll have a cot, and somewhere to go to the bathroom, and some snacks. None of these very rudimentary resources are being deployed on these buses,” McNally said, arguing the buses-as-shelter model should be shut down. “It’s just a logistical and rights nightmare.”

For TTC staff, the off-loading of the homelessness crisis onto the transit system has added a new layer of stress to their roles. Green confirmed that TTC workers staffing the overnight buses have not been given any additional training, though the city said it had “prepared an onboarding training module” to answer questions from operators working those shifts.

‘Failure on the part of society’

The Spadina streetcar operator, whose name the Star agreed to withhold as they were not authorized to discuss sensitive workplace issues with reporters, dreads work each day. People drink, smoke and urinate in the car, and have occasionally left behind drug paraphernalia such as needles and crack pipes, the operator said. Other passengers then complain.

“It’s a failure on the part of society because a lot of these folks are suffering from various mental difficulties. We’re not prepared or trained to deal with that,” they said. The city needs to urgently create more shelter space, the operator said — but in the interim, adding outreach workers to morning streetcar routes would help.

The city, in the statement from Baker, pointed to Toronto’s separate partnership with LOFT Community Services, where that agency’s staff work alongside the city’s street outreach team — known as Streets to Homes — and TTC staff to respond to the needs of vulnerable people sheltering on transit.

The pilot program, now extended into 2025, was first introduced last year as the TTC faced heightened attention over a series of violent incidents. While advocates and health workers cautioned against blaming any one population for that violence, it prompted public conversation about the state of transit — including the number of people turning to the system for lack of shelter.

The LOFT partnership was one of several responses rolled out to support those in crisis along the transit network, as well as address security concerns at a time when the TTC was struggling with its ridership rates.

Back on the streetcar platform, at least one community worker was visible among those waiting for the Spadina car, including other homeless Torontonians who’d stayed elsewhere the previous night and turned up at that early hour to board the TTC to remain indoors throughout the day.

That included Arturo Garcia, who previously spoke to the Star while staying in a Kensington Market encampment that was partially cleared by the city in November.

“I haven’t done the warming buses,” he said as the car began its route that morning. Most nights, he said he’d “bounce around” locations, including that Kensington-area churchyard. “But a lot of times I kind of just pass out on the streetcar.”

That came with its own issues, Garcia said, as he and others seated around him noted that you had to consider the potential of having your belongings taken. But at least there were people nearby who might intervene, the passengers agreed.

That morning, as roughly a dozen people had piled onto this particular streetcar, he said it looked similar to many other mornings he’s seen lately. Garcia, like the streetcar operator, sees substance use as the most acute point of friction. To minimize potential harms and conflicts, he suggested creating more regulated spaces for those using street drugs.

A woman sitting across from Garcia remarked how the scene was a striking picture of how many people in the city are struggling with poverty. But as Toronto continues to face the winter cold, Garcia counts his blessings.

“The TTC, they’re accommodating,” he remarked — noting staff don’t ask people sheltering on board to disembark unless there is some kind of disruptive incident. “I’m surprised that they’re allowing it.”

These have none of the basic amenities of even our lowest quality spaces, which are warming centres. You know at least you’ll have a cot, and somewhere to go to the bathroom, and some snacks. None of these very rudimentary resources are being deployed on these buses. It’s just a logistical and rights nightmare.






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