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No Room in the Shelters During Toronto’s Christmas Cold Snap

In spite of two votes by city council calling for 90% or less shelter occupancy for people without homes, Toronto bureaucrats with strong backing from Mayor John Tory are running a system effectively over 100% capacity. There is an increasingly real danger that multiple people may be found frozen to death while sleeping outdoors during a cold snap projected to last for the remainder of the twelve days of Christmas.

Last night beginning at 10:49 p.m., I recorded a call between myself and Toronto’s central intake centre at 129 Peter Street where I was told that there were no beds available for families or couples and that there were also not likely any beds available for a hypothetical 30 year old pregnant woman. According to official stats from the City, the night previous saw shelter space for families reach 100% and for women the figure reached 98% with 727 of 741 women’s beds occupied.

Obscured by these precipitously high capacity numbers – well over Council’s mandated 90% rate –  are people who are told they must go to a warming centre or central intake to wait for a shelter bed and are never provided with one. City figures as of 4 a.m. recorded an additional 489 individuals making use of mats and blankets or simply surviving at Out of the Cold, 24-Hour Winter Respite, or 24-Hour Women’s Drop-ins. Taken together, at 4 a.m., there were 5,970 individuals without homes using Toronto’s shelter, respite, drop-in, or Out of the Cold programming where the system maxes out at 5,780 beds. In other words, the shelter system was at least at 103% of capacity with an untold number of people turned away by overcrowding to sleep rough.

At the time of my call, the deep chill had reached -15.2 degrees Celsius or 4.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Environment Canada projected an overnight low of -18C/0F (-25C/-13F with windchill) and called for snow flurries beginning in the early morning hours. Overnight lows for the next week are projected to range from -11 to -22 degrees Celsius or +12 to -8 Fahrenheit.

Most recently, Council voted overwhelmingly 36-3 in April of 2013 in favour of a motion instructing the General Manager of the City’s Shelter, Support, and Housing Administration (SSHA) to meet Toronto’s then decade old mandate to achieve “an occupancy rate no higher than 90%” in the shelter system. Two of the three votes against were from then Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug.

Zoe Dodd was recently named along with her co-belligerents at Moss Park’s Overdose Prevention Site (Toronto OPS) as Torontonians of the year. Dodd explained yesterday to Global News that overnight Wednesday to Thursday, with similarly frosty weather, “We had a lot of people looking for shelter. There were two women who were really vulnerable who I called and tried to get beds for, and there were no beds available.”

Reached for comment by email, the City of Toronto’s Sonia Zyvatkauskas responded that “Although we can’t comment on this specific situation, we can confirm that all agencies working with the City have been notified of the City’s expectation that no one be turned away from service without a referral to an appropriate alternative.” Zyvatkauskas, Policy Development Director at SSHA, did not respond to follow-up emails and calls to ask what the appropriate alternative for women would be. She likely meant the overnight Winter Respite or Warming Centres that took in over 400 people the previous night.

Overnight warming centres were in fact the option I was given when told by City staff at 129 Peter Street, “no, there aren’t any family shelters, no” (1:15 in audio below) and that “there’s no guarantee” for women’s spaces, even for a 30 year old pregnant woman, due to the cold weather alert with acknowledgement that “there’s not (m)any women’s beds available right now” (5:35).

SoundCloud Photo Credit: @TorontoOPS 

Dodd, responding to further questions over social media, noted that “the warming centres are full too.” People using Toronto OPS have no choice but to head that way “but don’t want to go because the closest one to [Moss Park] in the downtown east is deplorable and doesn’t have proper washroom facilities.” Another volunteer, writing from the @TorontoOPS Twitter account, was more explicit: “The nearest warming centre is worse than third world conditions and a disease outbreak waiting to happen. People want to stay near their community safety net so we need shelters in the immediate surrounding area – none are available.”

While Toronto’s City Councillors have repeatedly voted to maintain no greater than 90% shelter occupancy, their powers do not appear to include the ability to provide adequate shelter to people in Toronto most vulnerable to frigid temperatures.

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