According to Mayor John Tory and his spokespeople, Toronto’s shelters may be crowded but they are not at capacity. Yet in recent evenings, during one of the coldest weather periods in recent local memory, city staff have told several people calling the shelter intake system that no beds were available.
There is ample proof, and has been for years, that Toronto’s shelters are indeed full, and that the city’s definition of shelter availability has little connection to the practical ability to access a bed. Through a calculated blend of wordplay, distraction, and a failure to provide meaningful data, Tory is misleading the public about the desperate state of emergency shelters.
Real capacity vs. stated capacity
Shelter availability impacts people on an individual and family basis. If a person or family needing a shelter calls 311 or central intake to ask for a bed, and is told a bed is not available, the system has failed to shelter that individual or family. The city’s claim that beds are available makes no practical difference to someone who calls and is denied.
In recent days, frontline workers Zoë Dodd and Gillian Kolla of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Site (Toronto OPS) have told reporters they called the city for beds and were told none were available. Kolla said she independently called staff at the city’s recenty-opened respite centre at the Better Living Centre, and was also told that no beds were available.
Veteran street outreach worker Doug Johnson has gone a step further and recorded conversations with central intake staff who denied his request for a bed. Reporter Mick Sweetman has also documented statements directly from city staff who said the system is at capacity. City officials have not denied any of these reports.
Instead, the city has repeated that the shelter system in recent days has been operating at 95% capacity, which suggests that 5% of the beds are empty. But an empty bed is only useful if the city offers it.
Our shelter system allocates beds based on age, gender, and family status—it does not, for example, offer single individuals a bed in family shelters, or send people who identify as women to sleep in men’s facilities. If there are no beds for single women on a given night, and a single woman inquires about a bed and is denied, the availability of beds in other categories is irrelevant to her situation.
Similarly, if a person in Scarborough calls central intake for a bed, but the only beds available are at a shelter in Etobicoke, the city’s claim of availability is dubious. People who rely on the the emergency shelter system rarely have the means to move easily around the city, and their path is steeper given the bitterness of winter weather we are currently experiencing.
The city also counts extra mats and cots that can be laid out on the floors of existing shelters as part of its capacity. Once the regular system is full, the city can call shelters and ask them to use the mats and cots. Since these beds are only offered during emergencies such as the city’s ongoing Extreme Cold Weather Alert, they are only provided after most people seeking a bed have already inquired. This desperate tactic is the basis for Tory’s claim of extra shelter bed capacity.
On December 28, Johnson shared audio of a call he made to central intake, during which he was told the city had no family beds available. The intake worker advised Johnson, who was calling at almost 11 p.m., that there is often no availability of beds at night. “You should call us earlier in the day cause that’s when the shelters get filled,” the worker told him, “by night-time everything’s filled.”
Johnson has continued documenting refusals from central intake in recent days. He has also published a direct acknowledgement from Steve Meaghar, the shelter manager at the Christie Refugee Welcome Centre, that the family motel system, the last resort for families when shelters are full, is also at capacity.
“[G]iven that there’s no available shelter, it’s very confusing that only 89% occupancy is being reported in motel programs,” Meaghar told Johnson in a piece published on December 31. “Either there is space and families are being denied access to it, or there’s actually no space and the numbers are misleading. Either way, it’s problematic.”
In recent days since evidence of the ongoing shelter crisis has been in the news, the city has simply stopped updating its online daily census of shelter capacity. On December 28 2017, the last day the city published its numbers, 100% of family shelter beds were full, youth bed capacity was at 99%, and beds for single women were also at 99% capacity. While city officials blame “miscommunication” for their inability to provide beds, their own willful misrepresentation of Toronto’s shelter capacity is the problem.
Beyond the city’s failure to provide some people with shelter beds, we must also remember that the overburdened system is itself unacceptable. It is worth considering what a crowded shelter looks, feels, and smells like during a Canadian winter. The safety, comfort, and health of shelter users is directly related to capacity and overcrowding.
Shelter beds vs. warming/respite centres
Another city tactic to misrepresent shelter capacity is to talk about “space” rather than beds. Most city-operated shelters are only open in the evenings and overnight—they operate on the assumption that a providing safe place to sleep is a primary goal of the system. Given the declaration of successive Extreme Cold Weather Alerts, the city has also opened several 24 hour respite centres, and has allowed people to stay at its shelter referral centre on Peter Street.
While such facilities do provide space and some relief, they do not guarantee beds as the regular system does. The very need for such facilities is the clearest sign of overcapacity. The city has promoted respite facilities in its public communications to suggest that extra space is available. But the goal of the shelter system is to provide beds, and we must again reflect on the total inadequacy of people sleeping on the floors of city-run respite centres.
On February 15 2016, 28 year old Pierre Gregoire died of a suspected fentanyl overdose after leaving a city warming centre. Hours earlier Gregoire, a member of the Innu Nation in Labrador, had been eating at St. Felix drop-in centre. According to media reports, Gregoire left St. Felix after asking to sleep on the floor and being told there wasn’t enough space to do so. CityNews reported that St. Felix was already 10 people over its capacity when Gregoire arrived.
It is not a coincidence that overdose prevention workers in Moss Park, who have used their trailer as a makeshift warming facility in recent nights, are among the loudest voices condeming the lack of shelter access. Such workers are being forced to provide inadequate alternatives to shelter in light of the city’s failures. Toronto’s well-publicized opioid crisis is directly related to the city’s overwhelmed shelter system.
Shelter at the Better Living Centre (BLC) at Exhibition Place
After nearly two weeks of consecutive nights with temperatures below the freezing mark, the city announced on December 21 that it would convert part of the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place into a 24-hour shelter and respite facility. The city promised 20 beds immediately, with a plan to increase capacity to 100 beds in mid-January. Only six days later on December 27, BLC worker Kelly Foss told CBC that the new shelter would soon reach its capacity due to increased demand from the cold weather.
Foss also said the BLC had increased its capacity to accommodate 50 people with beds the previous evening. After more complaints on December 28 about lack of access, City councillor Joe Mihevc said that BLC now accommodated 100 beds, and that only 50 had been used that previous evening.
On December 30, Toronto OPS staffer Gillian Kolla told media she called shelter intake to request for beds for several clients, and that staff told her none were available. Kolla said she also called BLC directly and was told the facility was full. According to Kolla, city staff on the phone did not refer her to BLC.
Given that Kolla’s request for beds happened at night during freezing temperatures, it is extremely likely that the city had already added all extra mats and cots into the system. Any beds added after Kolla’s call were irrelevant to the clients she was serving—the failure to offer beds to people at Toronto OPS when they inquired is the issue, not the final bed count. Circumstances like these highlight the emptiness of the city’s claims of excess shelter capacity.
In a climate where shelter demand can absorb 100 extra spaces so quickly, the city’s failure to immediately add more capacity is devastating. In previous years Toronto has made use of military armouries at Moss Park and Fort York to shelter a combined 300 people. Mayor Tory has repeatedly rejected the use of the armouries for the current winter season.
The politics of increasing shelter space
In 2013, then-mayor Rob Ford was indignant about public demands to increase shelter capacity. Ford was blunt about his refusal to open more spaces—he considered it wasteful spending. At a press conference during a cold spell that March, Ford proclaimed that “we don’t need more spaces, we have over 100 empty beds a night. We have to be efficient. You wanna open up 500 empty beds? That’s just a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
In this latest phase of the same shelter crisis, Tory is also reluctant to do more and, although he doesn’t cite money as his major obstacle, the current mayor is employing the same tactics Ford did to distract the public. Just as Ford attempted to discredit the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for its shelter advocacy, Tory has also named OCAP and singled out lifelong advocates like Cathy Crowe in his refusals to open the armouries.
“I just wonder why it is that the view of OCAP and Cathy Crowe and some of these people are to be taken somehow as gospel,” Tory told CBC’s Matt Galloway on the Metro Morning radio program in December.
In early December, Tory and 24 councillors voted against and defeated a plan to open the armouries, choosing instead the respite centres and the Better Living Centre, which have quickly proven to be insufficient. Tory’s biggest concerns with using the armouries include the need to coordinate with military officials onsite, as well as what he calls “security arrangements” between military personnel and the homeless.
As for the money, Tory said in the Metro Morning interview that “it’s not the major consideration but there’s a cost consideration.” The last time the federal Department of National Defence allowed the city to use the armouries, it charged $4,200 a day.
Toronto’s Extreme Cold Weather Alert continues—last night’s low temperature was -16°C. Tonight’s expected low is -18°C. If Toronto does not have the money, staffing, or coordinating capacity to increase shelter access, now is the time to say so and to ask for help. Mayor Tory’s current stance is not only endangering the lives of those who can’t access shelter, it is endangering and diminishing the lives of those forced to stay in the dangerously overcrowded system.