City council is being asked to approve a review of the potential creation of at least 1,000 new shelter beds, as well as examine existing shelter and winter respite services, including how those services are funded by the city.
The motion was moved by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam at the city’s community, development and recreation committee. It was drafted by a group of councillors, including Wong-Tam, Joe Cressy and Paula Fletcher, with the support of Mayor John Tory.
If council approves the plan at the end of this month, city staff will be tasked with providing a detailed assessment of need, as well as what kind of funding and supports are currently provided by all levels of government.
The number of people seeking emergency shelter continues to rise, the committee heard, but the budget for the city’s shelter support and housing administration division has stayed the same and actually gone down over the past 10 years, once adjusted for inflation. The number of full-time staff managing issues related to homelessness has also stalled.
“We are definitely not keeping up with the need for services for Toronto’s most vulnerable people,” despite continued efforts by city staff to meet demand, Wong-Tam said at a morning press conference.
Part of the request made of council is to ask the federal government to keep the Moss Park Armoury open until April 15, without a cost to the city. Currently, federal funding for the armoury is expected to end this month, when the province opens a refurbished youth detentioncentre as a temporary shelter.
Over Monday night, more than 5,600 people were in beds in the city’s emergency shelter system, including more than 1,400 motel beds used by families, according to city data.
An additional 738 people sought shelter in two women-only, 24/7 drop-ins, seven 24/7 winter respite sites (including 103 people at Moss Park), one warming centre and the volunteer-led Out Of the Cold program, at five faith-based organizations. At drop-ins, people sleep on mats or cots and sometimes in chairs.
Council was also asked to keep the cold-weather programs open past the scheduled closing date of April 15.
Street nurse and advocate Cathy Crowe said the city needs to declare homelessness an emergency, in part to leverage funding from the federal government.
“You have to look at some severe measures. This didn’t just happen this winter. We have been coming to you for a long time,” Crowe told the committee.
Crowe submitted more than 30 pages of documents including open letters from agencies from previous years cautioning that the system was past the breaking point.
She also showed a photograph taken at the drop-in at All Saint’s Church-Community Centre, run by multi-service agency Margaret’s. The image shows people lying side-by-side on mats, during the early January cold snap.
Crowe called for more oversight and new standards for drop-ins and warming centres to ensure agencies striving to provide safe and comfortable shelter from the cold have clear guidelines to follow and can request additional help from the city as needed. That should extend to the Out Of the Cold program, she said, which, after 31 years, has yet to have clear standards for cleaning.
When asked about the photo, Anna Stranges, program director for Margaret’s, said the people who visit them receive warm meals and referrals to a range of support services. The program is looking into installing showers, a complicated process in a heritage building, and strive to use the resources they have to best serve the people, many of whom might not go to the regular shelter system but come to the drop-in to get out of the cold, she said.
In January, when temperatures plunged the capacity at that site had been boosted to 130 people.
Crowe was one of more than a dozen experts and advocates who called for more comprehensive housing, health and harm reduction services.
Kira Heineck, with the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness, spoke to the combined need for more shelter beds and affordable housing and wraparound supports at both.
“If we want to reduce the pressure on the shelter system, we have other options than just creating new beds,” said Heineck. “They will fill up, and if we don’t have other places for people to go we will be here next year and next year having the same debate we have had for decades.”
Tory and seven city councillors called for the review Tuesday, through an open letter. It could include a study of city budget funding for shelters over the past 10 years, as well as transitional housing and funding provided by the province and federal government.
“The province has a cap on funding for shelters, and the city is at its cap,” Cressy said at the morning press conference with Wong-Tam and Fletcher.
Fletcher spoke of the “the very dark, cold days over Christmas and New Year’s where we discovered that people were being turned away from shelters,” because of a lack of space and communication issues.
“Our city is failing on the housing front,” said Cressy. “When you have a city as wealthy as ours, and you have a shelter system that is over capacity, that is a failure.”