Police photograph of a man sought in connection with a string of downtown sexual assaults last month. Homeless advocates say such incidents are why Toronto needs a 24-hour drop-in space for women.
Toronto is a step closer to opening a first-of-its-kind facility to help the city's most vulnerable women.
A report going before the Community Development and Recreation Committee on Tuesday, January 21 says that preliminary research indicates there is a need for a 24-hour drop-in centre for women who aren't suited to the homeless shelter system.
Programming would be geared towards sex workers, seniors, aboriginal and queer women, and those with extreme addiction or mental health issues. It would be the first drop-in facility in Toronto that would be open all night, providing a safe space for women around the clock.
"It is definitely needed and I think it would be well utilized," says Sheryl Lindsay, executive director of Sistering, which operates two daytime drop-ins for women.
Homelessness advocates began pushing for an all-night drop-in after a woman was sexually assaulted twice last September as she sat outdoors the downtown east side. In a separate incident last month, a man approached two women in the same part of town, asking one to perform a sex act and threatening her. Two days later a man matching his description sexually assaulted three women downtown within less than an hour.
"We know that women [are] being assaulted on the streets," Lindsay says. "They're at very high risk, especially if they're staying outside."
There are few all-night drop-in centres in North America, but one successful model is Vancouver's WISH Drop-In Centre Society, which offers sex workers hot meals, showers, laundry facilities, make-up, clothing, and nursing care.
In consultations with Toronto's Shelter Administration, homelessness service providers stressed that a new facility here should be "barrier-free," meaning women could come and go as they pleased instead of requiring a referral, as they often do at shelters.
Staff would be trained to provide immediate crisis intervention, as well as onsite medical and mental health supports, and referrals to detox and housing programs. Showers, snacks, and laundry services could be offered, but likely not places to sleep.
According to the report the facility would probably need to have a "high tolerance for disruptive behaviour" from its clientele, and require enhanced security "to ensure safety from external parties that prey on vulnerable women."
In what could be a controversial move, the Shelter Support and Housing Administraiton is even planning to consult city legal staff on the ramifications of allowing drug use on-site as part of a harm reduction approach to addiction.
Possible locations for the facility have yet to be determined, but it would likely be downtown to provide greatest possible access for the homeless population.
A spokesperson for the shelter administration stresses that more research is needed before it commits to opening an all-night drop-in, but says there is evidence of "a gap in after-hours and overnight services for street-involved women."
City staff will conduct further consultations with service providers and street-involved women over the next two months, and report back to the Community Development and Recreation Committee in April.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is confident the plan will go ahead.
"What is emerging very quickly is that there is broad-based consensus that this type of venue is important," she says. "We know that women who are involved in street activity are exposed to violence in different ways than men [who] are homeless."
Liisa Schofield, with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's Women's Organizing Committee, supports the city's efforts so far. But given the risks faced by street-involved women, she believes the process should be moving faster. She also wants the city to consider opening up two drop-ins, one in either end of downtown.
"It would provide a level of safety and security and access that doesn't exist right now," she says. "We feel like there's more of an urgency for it, and a need for it immediately."