City to use motel rooms to free up shelter space

Plan to rent 20 rooms for homeless families could be implemented by this weekend

The Community Development and Recreation Committee voted on Thursday to free up shelter beds by renting out space for homeless families in two Toronto motels. 

The 20 rooms can accommodate up to 90 people, and by moving families from shelters into the motels, beds in family homeless facilities can be repurposed for people in other sectors of the shelter system.

But while councillors said the move was proof the city was moving swiftly to address the shelter crisis, advocates aren’t convinced the efforts will actually reduce crowding in the overburdened system.

Thursday’s vote comes after four homeless men died in a span of eight days, leading to calls for the city to do more to protect people living on the street. Two of the men were discovered outside in frigid cold, one died while waiting in the city shelter referral centre, and a fourth was apparently killed when the shack he was living in caught fire.

“In light of the extreme climate conditions [and] the deaths of four people, it is incumbent on all of us to support an immediate action plan,” said Councillor James Pasternak, chair of the committee.

He described the motel scheme as “not ideal. But if it saves lives, this is something that we should support.”

The city already uses motel rooms to give shelter to up to 350 members of homeless families. The additional 20 rooms will cost $48,000 per month to operate, and could be made available as early as this weekend. Families moved into the motels will be those that are already close to being housed and no longer require city supports to find permanent accommodation.

“What we’re doing we’re doing in a very thoughtful, managed way, with the best interests of the households in mind,” says Phillip Abrahams, the acting general manager of the shelter administration.

The department’s hope is that adding the motel rooms will help lower shelter occupancy to 90 per cent. Council approved that target in April 2013, but the system continues to operate at 93 per cent or higher, and those numbers likely over-represent how many beds are actually available.

Danielle Koyama, a frontline community health worker and spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, is skeptical that the motel plan will actually lower crowding across the shelter system. The family shelters in which beds are being opened up are specialized facilities not designed to accommodate groups of homeless individuals, she says. 

“It’s confusing as to how it’s actually going to impact single people who are trying to access shelter,” Koyama says.  

Before the recent spate of deaths, staff were already considering providing more motel spaces as one of the recommendations in a system-wide review that will be released in March. The review will include strategies to achieve the 90 per cent target, which would require adding about 100 to 120 permanent beds to the 4,400-bed system, according to Abrahams.

Abrahams told the committee on Thursday that his 2015 budget submission would include funding for new permanent shelter beds. A facility for homeless LGBTQ youth is also in the works, as are a warming centre for young people and two 24-hour women’s drop-ins. 

One of two drop-ins was supposed to open in December, but it didn’t get funding approval before the end of the last council term. Staff say the first one is now on track to open by March, assuming it receives funding when council votes on the 2015 budget that same month.

Despite the delay, Councillor Joe Mihevc says he’s convinced staff “are doing everything they can to open these two women’s drop-ins ASAP.”

“I know it’s a pain,” he says. “We all want them opened yesterday.”  

About 10 people signed up to speak to the committee, and most of them said improvements to homelessness services can’t come quickly enough.

Terry Finlay, the retired archbishop of the Anglican diocese of Toronto, reported that church outreach workers’ calls to shelters “often go unanswered. 

“It is vital that more room is available in shelters,” he said, “to bring humanity to those in deep jeopardy.” | @BenSpurr

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