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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Matt Elliott: Toronto's shelter shortage is a crisis by design

Toronto’s budget is the root cause of the shortage and this is not the first time it's happened.

It gets cold every year, writes Matt Elliott, and every year a version of the same shelter shortage crisis plays out.

Torstar News Service

It gets cold every year, writes Matt Elliott, and every year a version of the same shelter shortage crisis plays out.

History repeats.

Almost five years ago, during a bitterly cold February in 2013, I wrote a column for this newspaper about Toronto’s homeless shelter crisis.

Back then, the shelter system was running at about 95 per cent of capacity each night, well above the city’s target of 90 per cent. Shelter workers, volunteers and activists on the streets were reporting homeless people were being turned away, and forced to sleep on the streets.

Seven people had died.

But the political response from Toronto City Hall was lacking. Slow. Combative.

The mayor at the time, Rob Ford, pointed to the fact that shelter system still have some capacity. “How many more empty beds should we pay for?” Ford asked, dismissing the experiences of people on the street who said those beds weren’t suitable or weren’t being made available to them.

Calls to open the armouries, or use city-owned buildings like Metro Hall as makeshift warming centres, went unanswered.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Depressingly, agonizingly, frustratingly familiar?

A line of police leave Mayor Rob Ford's office as homeless advocates are peacefully arrested; the protestors set up sleeping bags in city hall to protest a lack of shelter beds on February 15, 2013.

STEVE RUSSELL/ TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE

A line of police leave Mayor Rob Ford's office as homeless advocates are peacefully arrested; the protestors set up sleeping bags in city hall to protest a lack of shelter beds on February 15, 2013.

This year’s homeless shelter crisis is almost a carbon copy. Same bitter cold. Same 95 per cent of capacity numbers reported in the shelter system most nights. Similar stories from those on the front lines about homeless being able to find space. Similar slow response from politicians.

To be fair, Mayor John Tory’s response has been better than that of his predecessor.

After voting against asking the federal government to make the armouries at Moss Park and Fort York available as emergency shelter space last month, Tory changed his tune and pushed to open Moss Park, and has now opened warming centres at Metro Hall and the community centre in Regent Park.

But what remains frustrating is any suggestion that this crisis is surprising or unprecedented. This happened in 2013. It’s happening this year. A version of it happens each and every winter.

The real cause isn’t the cold. It’s not bad communication. (Though that doesn’t help.) And it’s not a sudden, unanticipated spike in demand.

No, the real cause is a political culture at city hall that looks at stories of vulnerable people being unable to find safe shelter, that examines numbers showing the city’s nightly failure in meeting its 9 per cent shelter occupancy target, and says, “you know, our real priority is keeping property taxes low.”

That’s it. The answer is in the city’s budget. The problem is that instead of proactively planning to grow spending on housing services, social supports and long-term housing to anticipate need and build up capacity, Toronto’s last two mayors have spent eight years – including this year -- calling for budget freezes or budget cuts.

It’s a crisis by design.

Last week, Coun. Joe Mihevc, Tory’s anti-poverty advocate on council, explained that it’s impossible to add new shelters overnight. That securing funding and finding available space takes years.

That’s precisely the point.

A municipal government devoted to a long-term fix and to supporting vulnerable people would make those investments before the need reached a breaking point. But Toronto’s government has instead chased austerity year after year, letting the same crisis play out every time the temperature drops.

The reason it’s so hard to get out of this hole is because this city has spent so many years digging it.

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