Homelessness advocates who have spent months pushing for a round-the-clock safe space for women were encouraged Tuesday when council overwhelmingly backed a proposal to set up Toronto's first 24-hour women's drop-in.
The vote was 27-1, with only Giorgio Mammoliti opposed.
Despite the positive move, some advocates remain concerned about whether the new facility will win funding approval before the final council meeting of this term.
Toronto has several women's drop-ins but none of them stay open overnight, when the need is most acute. Tuesday's decision means that city staff will issue a request for expression of interest to find organizations willing to operate up to two new drop-ins, one each in the city's east and west ends. Staff will report back to the budget committee in August on the feasibility and cost of moving ahead, and if approved the proposal will likely go to council later that month.
The goal is to open at least one drop-in by December. Preliminary estimates are that each new facility could cost up to $2 million annually.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says she doesn't anticipate the cost of the project being a problem at budget committee.
"The nod from the general manager of shelter support is that it's looking very positive," she said.
But Liisa Schofield of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty worries that "there's a threat that it still could be shot down on the budgeting question."
She's concerned about getting the project approved by council's August meeting, which is the last of the current term. The proposal was already delayed when some councillors didn't show up to debate it at an April committee meeting. "We're running against time," Schofield said, adding that she's cautiously optimistic it will go ahead.
Samantha, a 36-year-old who has been living on Toronto's streets on and off for nearly 24 years, says homeless women have few options when they need a safe space at night. Wait times for one of the city's 575 shelter beds are long and women who use drugs, are involved in sex work, or have mental health issues face additional obstacles in the shelter system.
Women "get stuck with sleeping with somebody just to have a place to stay for the night," said Samantha, who asked that her real name not be used and spoke to NOW with the assistance of a community worker.
She says that the proposed drop-in centres should be staffed with peer workers who understand the experiences of at-risk women and focus on a harm reduction approach to addiction.
"It's really really needed, and it's unfair that it isn't open already," Samantha said.
City staff are recommending that the drop-ins be "low barrier," meaning they would serve all women and provide a more flexible service model than the shelter system, which imposes curfews and can sometimes involve an intake process that some clients find invasive.
Women would not be able to sleep overnight at the drop-ins but could come and go as they pleased. Services that would be offered could include showers, laundry, meals, counselling, and safe drug use kits.