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Newly installed frosted windows obscure the view of the SHARC lobby, Thursday February 7.
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People asleep on the floor of the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, Thursday January 25.
As a nasty winter storm barrels down on Toronto, you won't see homeless people sleeping rough at the city's shelter intake centre Friday night, laid out on chairs or on the floor.
You won't see them, even if they are there. That's because shelter services has put frosted glass in the windows of the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, and you can no longer see inside the ground floor of the building on Peter St.
The new window coverings come shortly after NOW published photographs of several homeless people (with their faces blurred) sleeping inside the lobby of the SHARC during a cold weather alert last month. The SHARC isn't intended to operate as an emergency shelter - instead, its staff are supposed to refer walk-ins to one of the roughly 3,800 beds at other facilities across the city - and the accompanying article raised questions about shelter access during cold winter months.
According to shelter services spokesperson Pat Anderson, the new opaque windows are not a response to media reports, but were installed "to provide the privacy staff and clients have being asking for."
"Window coverings for this building were always in the plan," Anderson told NOW in an email, "but issues last summer with the behaviour of patrons of a nearby club led to action in September when we installed frosting on the Peter Street side as a test."
Frosted panes for the building's other street-facing façade, on Richmond St., were ordered in "mid-January" but not installed until last week, Anderson said. NOW ran photographs of people sleeping inside on January 25.
But Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary, has another explanation for the new windows. He says that the city doesn't want the public to know that shelters are often full, and that homeless people are being forced to sleep on chairs at the intake centre instead of being provided proper beds.
"They're trying to hide the problem instead of fix it," Hatlem said.
"It looks bad. They know it looks bad."
Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward includes the SHARC, doesn't buy the city's explanation for the new windows either.
"It's operating as a shelter right now, and has been for a couple of months," Vaughan said of the SHARC. "What seems clear is their real response was to put up... the opaque windows, and basically hide the people they have sleeping in there."
Vaughan says he contacted staff at the SHARC last autumn after he noticed increased activity at the site, including loitering complaints and unusually high traffic at nearby morning meal programs.
He says he was told by shelter staff that there was a shortage of available beds, and the SHARC was letting people stay the night before discharging them early in the morning.
It was frustrating news according to the councillor, who before the SHARC opened in 2010 helped ease residents' concerns about welcoming a homeless facility into the area by assuring them the intake centre would not be hosting large numbers of walk-in clients overnight.
The centre has 40 beds on-site, but they're supposed to be reserved for clients who are entering housing programs.
"It wasn't set up to be a shelter. It's a housing referral centre... if it was a shelter it would have to be built and constructed completely differently," Vaughan said.
When asked in an email, Anderson would neither confirm nor deny that the SHARC is being used as a de facto emergency shelter. But she suggested that anyone sleeping in the centre's lobby could be waiting to be placed in a shelter bed.
"There can be a wait between the time the request for a shelter bed is made and the referral confirmed by the host shelter," she wrote. "We have a safe and warm place for people to remain while waiting for the shelter bed to be made ready."
The city maintains it has enough beds to meet demand. During cold weather alerts, like the one issued ahead of Friday's storm, 172 additional spaces are opened up.
But the system is under pressure as homelessness supports dry up at both the municipal and provincial levels. The 2013 city budget cut 41,000 shelter bed nights from 2012 levels, and on January 1 Queen's Park eliminated the community start-up and maintenance fund, replacing it with a new city-administered housing stabilization fund that resulted in a $14.6-million reduction in homelessness services to low-income residents.