March 19 2013
You’ve heard it said — from the rabble-rousing bleeding hearts derided as professional activists — that Toronto’s homeless shelters are overflowing and spilling people onto the streets on cold nights.
You’ve also heard it said — insistently from the mayor, no less — that there’s plenty of space in the shelters; that on any given night beds are sitting empty in the city’s shelter system.
City councillors spent three hours Monday considering that apparent contradiction — “two apparent truths.” City staff presented a reasonable case, explaining how both sides might come to different conclusions.
City figures show that Toronto’s shelter system is operating at 96 per cent full. (91 per cent full for single men; youth 97 per cent; single women 99 per cent; adult couples or family 100 per cent). For one, 96 per cent occupancy is virtually full. A hotel with 96 per cent of its beds reserved would take down the “vacancy” sign.
In addition, most of the few available rooms are created by using transitional beds, not permanent emergency shelter beds. As such, the supply is even tighter than the above numbers suggest.
So, even if the city’s count is bang-on correct, there are huge problems accommodating those in need:
- Homeless persons access the system at 58 locations across the city. “It is possible that on occasion workers are inappropriately advising callers that a bed is not available at their location and not offering an alternative solution,” a report to council says. This is despite a city policy of finding an alternative.
- Shelters operate 24/7, but someone seeking a bed at 4 a.m. is likely to be out of luck. Drop in at 4 in the morning and your chances are very limited.
- Just because a bed is vacant doesn’t mean it’s available to someone needing it. Only one shelter allows pets. Someone with limited mobility might not be able to use a top bunk. Some shelters are for men or women, or families only. Couples have limited choices.
- Some homeless are afraid of some shelters for safety or hygiene reasons; others want to be close to their known community — downtown or in the inner suburbs.
- There’s been an unexpected jump in demand. In preparing the 2013 budget, staff projected the city’s beds would be used 41,000 fewer times in 2013. But in January and February the beds were occupied 2,342 more times than projected. “This means that 40 more beds were filled on average each night . . . than had been forecast,” the report to council says.
Instead of confronting the politicians with epithets, several speakers who have used the shelter system to get back on their feet urged councillors to fix the problems.
“Invest in human beings,” said Johnny Smash, who moved from multiple jailings and life on the street to a full-time job — plus, he says, a “top events planner and host. This is something that actually works. If I didn’t get into that shelter that night, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
The council committee unanimously voted to free up 172 “flex” beds that are often counted as part of the available inventory of beds but are frequently unavailable. They ordered an independent review of the shelter system, and a report on how to get back to the city’s policy where 90 per cent occupancy was considered “full.”
We’ll see if this goodwill is sustained as the issue moves to the mayor’s executive committee, where hearts don’t bleed as easily.
Councillors Josh Matlow and Maria Augimeri put the issue into personal context. If your child or loved one had social and mental issues rendering him homeless, wouldn’t you scream to get city council’s attention — much like John Clarke and the loud protesters called the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty?
Augimeri then said, in her more than three decades as a politician, she has seen Toronto grow from disgust over having to step around old men sleeping on the streets, to grudging acceptance of young men in the same position, to now tolerance of homeless adolescents.
“One day we’ll be stepping over infants on our streets,” Augimeri predicted. “Call me crazy.”
Wish I could.
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