Council votes for new shelter beds, refuses to open armouries to the homeless
City staff say armouries are not the best option for homeless people, but advocates say opening them could save lives.
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Angela Gibson feels fortunate to have a bed in a Toronto homeless shelter.
“People are being turned away,” Gibson, told the Star one day before Wednesday’s emotional city council debate on how city officials respond to an ongoing surge in demand for beds that has shelters, drop-ins and respite centres bursting at the seams.
Before she into an emergency shelter Gibson, 54, relied on Sistering drop-in, where women sleep in chairs or mats on the floor. Sistering felt safe, but is chaotic and those women need proper beds, she said.
“It is just being in an atmosphere of overcrowding in and of itself can cause lots of issues,” including illness and violence, because of mental health issues and women dealing with trauma and little to no privacy, said Gibson.
Council voted 39-3 for measures including staff finding places for hundreds of new shelter and respite spaces — either within existing shelters, or in other city-owned sites, or in motels already hosting overflow residents including many refugee families.
But council rejected a bid to go further, to urgently add 1,000 new shelter beds, and to ask the Department of National Defence to immediately open the “cavernous” armouries at Moss Park and Fort York with overflow beds — a request DND said Wednesday it would welcome.
Councillor Joe Mihevc made the successful motion backed by Mayor John Tory, who will convene a meeting of community leaders to see if they have space for shelter or respite spots. Mihevc pegged the investment at $30 million for the first phase, $10.6 million for the second and, for new shelters set to open next year, $45 million in one-time capital costs and $12 million in ongoing operating expenses.
The new spaces are a “major, major investment in the shelter system of Toronto that has not happened in at least a decade,” he said, adding between 9 per cent and 13 per cent to the current 5,651 beds, 1,300 of which are motel rooms rented by the city for $105 per night including food.
Mihevc added he’s “disappointed some people don’t think it goes far enough.”
They include his colleague Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who choked back tears describing the impacts of overcrowding on homeless people in her downtown ward and distraught staff begging for help.
“Lives are definitely at risk — there is no doubt in my mind we will see deaths this winter just as we have seen deaths in previous winters,” said Wong-Tam, noting that more than 70 homeless Torontonians have died this year. “If you can’t see the crisis and the emergency, you really shouldn’t be here.”
Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and Ryerson University professor famed for her work with the homeless, said in an interview the initiatives passed by council seem focused on the long-term while Toronto has an immediate crisis and the armouries could have been opened within days.
“I don’t understand the logic of turning it down, I just don’t,” she said of an invitation, relayed by Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, to request the armouries.
Paul Raftis, the city’s interim general manager of shelter, support and housing, told council the armouries “would not be the No. 1 option moving forward” because occupying military facilities with an “active workforce” raises security challenges and, when used in the past, cost the city $4,200 per day.
On Tuesday night city beds were at 95-per-cent capacity, well above the never-attained 90-per-cent maximum set by council, Raftis said, adding recent measures to add capacity — mostly motel spaces — have been immediately overcome by demand.
About one-quarter of shelter users are refugees, up from 10 per cent in early 2016, Raftis said, noting his department will overspend its budget by $10 million this year and has warned council it expects an $18-million overspend next year.
The surging cost of Toronto housing, and a drum-tight vacancy rate, are also keeping people in shelters who could otherwise move to long-term rentals.
With files from Emily Mathieu
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