Toronto urged to revamp its approach to emergency shelters

It recommends a simplified version with smaller and more customized buildings in a range of neighbourhoods, well-connected to local support services and designed with clients and the community in mind, but not guided or stalled by formal consultations.

“This is a daunting task, one that can pit neighbours against one another or bring them together. It can demonstrate that the City of Toronto and its staff and leadership can work with communities. It can integrate services. It can work,” said author Bruce Davis, an independent consultant.

“But the current process for finding new shelters needs to change.”

The proposal will be discussed at the city’s community development and recreation committee Thursday and if approved be taken to city council at the end of the month.

The goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding homelessness and convince neighbourhoods to not only welcome the creation of a shelter, but also the people who use them.

The current model involves staff from the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division working with the city’s real estate division to locate a site and then inform councillors roughly two months before the public is notified. After that, the discussion heads to city council.

Larger shelters, or those strictly for men, have resulted in pushback when a lack of information has resulted in concerns about the impact, presumably negative, on the area.

The city’s existing shelters are well above the 90 per cent capacity dictated by council, and staff need the freedom to explore other ways to get shelters up and running fast, but in ways that work best for clients, said Davis.

One example of a custom solution is the yet-to-be-built Red Door Family Shelter, which will be part of a condominium building on Queen St. E.

The new framework was developed through conversations with councillors, city staff, community agencies and people experiencing homelessness and spearheaded by councillors Ana Bailao and Paula Fletcher.

Bailao said it is critically important to not only make sure people have access to the services they need, but also to educate people on the benefits of integrating people who need a hand-up into their communities.

“It is not about warehousing,” she said. “It is the most humane way to deal with the issue, but honestly, it is the most fiscally responsible way to deal with the issue as well.”

The Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area estimates the price of having 5,253 people out on Toronto’s streets adds up to $420,000 a night, which includes shelter funding, police interactions, hospital stays or nights in jail. By contrast, the cost of putting these people into social housing would be about $34,000 a night, according to the report.

Fletcher said Toronto is a giving and generous city, but stressed this new model is needed if people are going to get out of shelters, into housing and on with life.

“You can’t do that by having somebody sleep in a shelter bed every night,” without access to services and the community, she said.

Author Davis said shelters shouldn’t be viewed as a dead end, but a step towards a better life. He also suggested substituting the word “shelter” with “First Step Housing and Services,” to reduce stigma.

Some of his recommendations for council include: approving service plans and operating budgets based on gaps identified by shelter staff; creating new incentives for developers; examining existing city property as potential sites; and amending policies to allow the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division more freedom to select and approve sites.

In Toronto, about 16,000 people used the shelter system in 2016 and 10 per cent of those stay about a year, according to city data.

Patricia Anderson, with shelter, support and housing administration, said not enough has been done to facilitate conversations about shelter development and a more collaborative model is needed.

The 10 per cent, or longer-term users, are the ones who will benefit most from the new, enhanced service model laid out in the report, she said.

“The new model aims to strengthen the wrap-around service approach we provide, for example, by introducing system navigators who will focus on ensuring that community-based supports are connecting and effective for people who need them.”

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