Toronto ombudsman probing ‘confusion’ over homeless services
Susan Opler's "enquiry" comes after a city worker was recorded mistakenly saying a temporary shelter was full.
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Toronto’s ombudsman is probing city services for homeless people and the city is launching a review following controversy over available shelter space as a potentially deadly cold snap stretches into the new year.
Ombudsman Susan Opler announced her inquiry Tuesday in a news release citing “recent confusion” over whether the crowded shelter system has room for homeless Torontonians who want out of the cold.
“We are concerned about reports that some people were mistakenly told there wasn’t any space for them on Dec. 30,” Opler said. “Ombudsman Toronto wants to ensure that these essential services for vulnerable people are being optimally delivered.”
At a press conference Tuesday, Paul Raftis, head of the city’s shelter, support and housing office, said, “There’s no question we have to review the system we have in place.”
The responses followed a second incident in which city staff appeared to tell a homeless advocate that a temporary respite centre, opened at Exhibition Place to deal with an ongoing shelter space shortage, was full even though cots were available.
Homeless advocate Doug Johnson recorded a phone conversation he said he had with a central intake worker, from the city’s shelter, support and housing office, at about 11 p.m. Monday, when temperatures had plunged to -21.3 C. Centralized intake is the main access point for people seeking emergency shelter for homeless Torontonians.
Johnson asked if there were any beds available in the west end or in the Better Living Centre respite centre, and a female intake worker is heard saying they were “filled up.”
But when Johnson and a friend who pretended to be homeless went to the building, they were invited inside and told there was space. That followed an incident Saturday when a Moss Park safe injection volunteer said she was told there was no overnight shelter for people huddled in her trailer, which closed at 10 p.m. The city later said there was ample room at the Better Living Centre.
The ombudsman’s inquiry — shorter, with smaller scope than a full systemic investigation — will update Opler’s report last March that recommended the city improve cold-weather drop-in services, and ensure the changes were made.
At least one councillor said the inquiry will not get to the heart of the problem.
“I think the ombudsmen’s review will help to identify the areas for improvement on communications,” said Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina). “However, the real issue is not how we communicate our available housing options. The real issue is the absence of housing on all fronts and the urgent need for political leadership to tackle the crisis.”
Opler noted the city is conducting its own review of communications and protocols but has promised to co-operate with her probe.
“Our inquiry will focus on the cold-weather needs of the city’s homeless, and whether the city is providing services in a way that ensures people’s dignity, safety and comfort,” she said.
Fred Victor Shelter, which is running the Better Living Centre respite, had open spots throughout Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon, there were 140 cots and room for more, said executive director Mark Aston.
“I am looking over at 30 to 40 cots not currently being used,” Aston said. “We are not turning people away.”
Homeless advocates and some city councillors are accusing senior city staff and the mayor’s office of downplaying a crisis by referring to “spaces” that might be only a yoga mat on a floor, and citing 4 a.m. vacancy figures that don’t reflect a full facility that earlier may have turned people away.
Outreach workers search the streets for people who might need help and offer them services. Staff are also trying to improve communication across the shelter intake stystem, Raftis said.
Street nurse Cathy Crowe is calling for the city to immediately open the two federally owned armouries, at Moss Park and Fort York, as temporary shelters, warning that Toronto’s intransigence could add to a death toll for homeless people that she said reached at least 80 in 2017.
By Tuesday afternoon, her petition calling for the armoury openings had more than 35,500 names.
Raftis said the armouries are an option the city will consider if it chooses to open additional sites in the future and staff is currently reaching out to the federal government.
Don Peat, speaking for John Tory, said the mayor supports both the ombudsman and city staff probes, and staff were told before the cold weather that “anyone who requests city-funded and/or operated homeless support and respite services, receives it. Staff also know that if they can’t help someone immediately, they work with individuals to get them transportation to alternative service.”
City statistics show that, while some vacancies were reported in some categories of overnight care, Toronto’s homeless services remain full to bursting in potentially deadly cold.
The overall occupancy rate was listed at between 94 per cent and 95 per cent but shelter space for families was full between Dec. 29 and Jan. 1.
Spots for women and youth remained about 98 per cent full, according to the 4 a.m. daily census, with only room for families — many of them refugees put up in motels outside the downtown core — showing any real capacity for a surge in use.
The statistics also show that on New Years’ Day more than 440 people were in 24-hour drop-ins and winter respites, which could be chairs or mats on floor but are not shelters with beds and services stipulated by city criteria.
Concern over the fate of homeless Torontonians, and the city’s response, has spurred some activists, volunteers and businesspeople to find and fund rooms themselves and give people in need a warm, safe place to stay.
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