Councillor Joe Mihevc, centre, talks with his colleagues at council, April 4, 2013.
City council voted to relieve pressure on the crowded shelter system Thursday, but homelessness advocates say it's too early to tell if the move will translate into more bed space for the city's vulnerable.
In a vote of 36-3, councillors overwhelming approved a motion from Councillor Joe Mihevc that directed staff to look into opening 172 emergency "flex" beds and additional shelter facilities, with the goal of keeping occupancy across the system no higher than 90 per cent.
The measure went a step further than amendments that Mihevc put forward last month at the community development and recreation committee.
"This really is a sign that Torontonians want people who are homeless to be treated honourably, and to be given a bed if they need a bed," Mihevc (St. Paul's) said after the vote.
Officially, the shelter system is currently operating at 96 per cent capacity, and the general manager of shelter services says that no one is ever turned away. But a staff report released last month showed that occupancy is effectively closer to 100 per cent because many beds that show up as free are actually reserved for homeless people with specific needs, and are unavailable to the majority of the population.
The report also showed that facilities for single women and co-ed couples are full or almost full.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty believes the system is dangerously overcrowded, and in recent months has staged a series of protests pushing for the city to return to a 1999 policy that mandated opening up additional beds whenever shelter capacity reached 90 per cent.
Mihevc says his motion has restored that policy.
"Ninety per cent is the number," Mihevc said. "Staff know that if it goes beyond 90 per cent, they're to open new beds, or open new sites, to accommodate the homeless."
In an email to NOW, shelter administration spokesperson Patricia Anderson confirmed that the department "will follow the direction provided by the motion and its aim of achieving a maximum 90 per cent occupancy in the short term."
Any costs associated with the motion will come out of $3 million in one-time provincial funds that were transferred to the shelter administration in the 2013 budget.
After the vote, OCAP's John Clarke said council had laid the groundwork for positive change, but he vowed that his group would keep pressure on the city to ensure more beds are actually deployed.
"Unfortunately homeless people can't sleep on council motions, they have to sleep on beds. So that's what we've got to create," he said.
"We will right away want to see them move on this motion."
Clarke stressed that the city must do more than activate emergency "flex" beds, which are set up in existing homeless facilities. He argues that new shelter space must be opened instead, possibly in Metro Hall or one of the city's armouries.
"It has to be a new facility," he said. "If you go into overcrowded shelters and lay mats down on the floor in the common area and say, that's your new beds, then all you're doing is compounding the problem, making the places even more unhealthy and dangerous than they already are."
Anderson would not answer a question from NOW about whether the administration intends to open up new facilities or put out extra "flex" beds in existing shelters.
Mayor Rob Ford, his brother Councillor Doug Ford, and Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday were the only council members who didn't support Mihevc's motion Thursday. Once it passed, the mayor was the lone vote against the amended shelter item as a whole.
Mayor Ford's resistance confounded Mihevc, especially because the councillor said he had crafted his amendment with the help of the mayor's staff.
"It is clearly disappointing," Mihevc said. "He is frankly out of step with what is happening on the streets in the city of Toronto."
Clarke says it's clear that homelessness issues aren't a priority for the mayor, who designated a city contract with Hero Certified Burgers as one of his two key items at this week's council meeting.
"If you're a casino operator or you run a hamburger chain, Mayor Ford is your friend," Clarke said. "If you're sleeping on the streets, you can't expect any help from him, you can expect him only to attack you."
The shelter administration is conducting a third-party review of its access policies. A report is expected to come before a city committee in the fall.