News / Toronto

John Tory now willing to open Moss Park armoury to homeless

Amid criticism of Toronto's cold-weather response to packed shelter system, the mayor says change of heart based on city staff advice.

A homeless man sleeps under an emergency blanket at Dundas Square, Toronto. December 28, 2017. Toronto Mayor John Tory has been criticized for the city's response to potentially deadly cold and a packed shelter system.

Bernard Weil / Torstar News Service Order this photo

A homeless man sleeps under an emergency blanket at Dundas Square, Toronto. December 28, 2017. Toronto Mayor John Tory has been criticized for the city's response to potentially deadly cold and a packed shelter system.

Less than a month after voting against opening armouries as emergency shelter for homeless Torontonians, Mayor John Tory says the city is talking to Ottawa about quickly opening the Moss Park armory until March.

Tory made the announcement Wednesday, amid criticism of the city response to potentially deadly cold and a packed shelter system, which has included city staff mistakenly telling frontline workers there was no more space for homeless people.

The mayor said city staff initiated talks Tuesday with National Defence officials about using the east downtown site at night to provide emergency shelter to as many as 100 homeless Torontonians. If the answers make sense for the city, “I will support that,” Tory told reporters at a city hall news conference.

Advocates for homeless people and some city councillors have long urged the city to open the armouries at Moss Park and Fort York as a cold-weather release valve for shelters, respite centres and drop-in centres struggling with a sustained surge in demand for shelter. Past mayors got the sites turned into temporary shelters during cold spells in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2004.

But Tory and 24 city councillors voted down a Dec. 6 motion by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to submit a formal request to Ottawa to open the armouries and other federal buildings for temporary shelter use. Council opted to quickly add 400 “spaces” — some of them mats on floors — rather than the 1,000 shelter spaces sought by Wong-Tam and 15 councillors.

The mayor said he changed his mind about the need for Moss Park based on city staff telling him Toronto now needs a seventh cold-weather respite centre.

The city-owned Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place, opened recently as an armoury alternative and operated by the Fred Victor Mission, expanded Tuesday to 140 cots from 110 and will soon have 150.

Tory, who was on vacation as calls rang out for more action from the city, applauded city employees’ work finding spots for the city’s most vulnerable residents in an extended cold snap. But he said instances where people called the city’s shelter support office seeking help, and were told there was no space although there was ample spots at the Better Living centre, “indefensible.”

The mayor said he is confident just-launched reviews by both city ombudsman Susan Opler and senior shelter support managers will identify the problem, and committed to get it “fixed” as soon as possible.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe, who has led the call to open the armouries and called Toronto’s shelter system underfunded, overcrowded and often dangerous for those in it, has offered to take Opler on a tour of facilities to give her a first-hand look.

City figures say Toronto’s 5,460 shelter beds were 95 per cent full at 4 a.m. Tuesday, with no shelter vacancies for families and shelter spots for women and youths 98 per cent full. City council has committed to a never-obtained goal of not going above overall 90 per cent capacity so nobody is turned away if there is a surge in need.

Those figures don’t include 535 who stayed overnight Tuesday on mats and chairs at drop-ins and respite centres.

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