Advocates call for better services as four names added to Toronto Homeless Memorial
Toronto’s shelter system has beds, but at last count was 94 per cent full.
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David Gordon would rather sleep tucked into the doorway of a bank than in the city’s emergency shelters or cold weather drop-in sites.
It’s not because of the individual people, stressed Gordon, 42, but because his anxiety and post-traumatic stress make it impossible for him to stay in cramped and noisy places, where men and women can experience a range of mental and physical health issues.
Toronto’s shelter system has beds, but at last count was 94 per cent full. At the city’s 24/7 winter drop-in sites people often sleep shoulder to shoulder on mats, or in chairs, or wherever they can rest.
“You can’t just throw a mat on the floor and expect that is going to solve the problem. You need to build places that we can afford to live in,” Gordon said during a press conference at City Hall on Tuesday morning.
“We all have a right to live and live comfortably, not the way we are now.”
Gordon is a community health centre volunteer. He relies on Ontario Disability Support Program payments, struggles with drug addiction and was one of many people who spoke to the need for better services and additional staff in shelters, drop-ins and warming centres. The city boosted the number of cold weather drop-ins this year, but advocates say the conditions are unsanitary and unsafe, despite the efforts of people working at them.
“We are here today to talk about the health crisis embedded in the shelter crisis,” said Jo Connelly, executive director with the Inner City Family Health Team.
Connelly, with advocates, health care providers, shelter workers and city councillors called on all levels of government to work together to boost the number of permanent shelter beds and provide wrap-around services for people without housing.
“The folks that are coming into our respite centres, our drop-ins, our shelters are needing more,” she said.
After the press conference, the group moved to the Toronto Homeless Memorial, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, where each month advocates add the names of people whose deaths are related to homelessness.
Four were added on Tuesday, said street nurse and advocate Cathy Crowe.
Members of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society spoke at the memorial, also calling for more shelter space and better health and support services for the people relying on them. They also want Toronto Public Health to release information on where and how people died.
“Are people dying in shelters of overdose, in housing, or on the street and all of those things we need to know to plan services effectively,” TOPS member Leigh Chapman told the Star.
Since mid-August, Chapman has been part of a team running an unsanctioned overdose prevention and harm reduction site in Moss Park. The team has supervised 3,855 injections and stopped or reversed 143 overdoses, as of Jan. 5, according to a recent press release.
The federal government approved the site for two weeks. Mayor John Tory, who has spoken about the need for better mental health services, had asked for it to be open until April.
On Tuesday, city and provincial officials confirmed that a former youth detention centre on George St. would be ready for use as an emergency cold respite site by month’s end. The province and the city formally requested that Moss Park remain open until that time.
Tory, in a written statement, said he has “asked for assurances that all efforts will be taken to ensure that this is a safe, comfortable, and dignified option for our most vulnerable citizens.”
The announcement followed a meeting between Tory and provincial Health Minister Eric Hoskins and Housing Minister Peter Milczyn.
“We had good discussions around the need to provide mental and physical health supports and services within the shelter system and the need to create more supportive housing that I hope will translate very quickly into actions we can take together,” Tory said.
On Sunday, the 5,880 spots in Toronto’s emergency system were 94 per cent full, according to city data. That included close to 1,500 spots in motel rooms for families. The city’s cold weather 24/7 respite sites were used by 360 people and an additional 111 women took refuge at two 24/7 drop-ins.
Two warming centres were used by 90 people. One, at Regent Park, remains open.
On Monday, 53 people were using the Moss Park site, as of 4 a.m.
After the memorial, MP Adam Vaughan said the most humane and cost-effective solution is the creation of supportive housing, rather than expanding the shelter system. In the meantime, he said, there should be better services within the existing system.
“Homelessness is a health care issue; it is not a poverty issue,” and is tied to mental health issues, physiological brain damage, addiction and undiagnosed developmental handicaps, he said.
“If we address it as a health care issue, it becomes a much easier problem to understand and therefore a much easier problem to solve.”
With files from David Rider and Amy Dempsey