City council has rejected a call to hold an emergency debate on Toronto's shelter system, despite reports that it is dangerously overcrowded and there are not enough beds for Toronto's homeless this winter.
After council convened for its monthly meeting Wednesday morning, Councillor Adam Vaughan put forward a motion that asked staff for an immediate report on the availability of shelter beds. Because it was a late addition to the agenda, the motion required a two-thirds majority to get council consideration. It failed 24-20, falling six votes short.
"I'm heartbroken. Our brothers and sisters are suffering, and there will be more deaths," said Councillor Gord Perks, who supported Vaughan's motion.
After the vote, protesters with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty erupted in the council chamber, shouting "Shame!" and "You have blood on your hands!," prompting speaker Frances Nunziata to clear the chamber.
One protester named Richard Dalton yelled that councillors should walk to the nearby shelter intake centre on Peter St. and see for themselves how overloaded the system is, instead of waiting for more reports.
"Actually just go down there. Start with that!" he shouted.
"If you really want answers, why wait for a goddam envelope to hit your desk when it's literally three blocks away?"
The group says 34 homeless people died in Toronto last year.
The motion Vaughan tabled would have moved up to Wednesday's council meeting a staff report that is scheduled to be debated next month by the Community Development and Recreation Committee. The report, which was requested by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam in January, asked staff to provide information on current wait times for shelter beds and conditions at the intake centre.
That report will still go ahead next month, but in a speech on the chamber floor, Vaughan said that shelters are already "packed to the gills" and that council couldn't wait any longer to consider the issue.
"We have a situation emerging on city streets which is extraordinarily serious. In fact in some cases it's tragic beyond being lethal," he said.
"We're failing to meet the needs of people living on the streets on an ongoing basis. And the statistics that are being given to us don't explain the situation."
Vaughan said that while city stats show that shelters are operating below 100 per cent capacity, those numbers don't match up to reality on the ground. He said that while beds might technically be available, they might not match the gender or needs of the homeless person seeking shelter, or may be in another part of the city.
But councillors who opposed debating the issue Wednesday said that they trusted the city statistics.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong showed reporters occupancy rates from Tuesday night, which stated that the shelter system was only 92 per full. He said council should wait until March for staff to present their report to the Community Development committee.
"It could be dealt with at the committee level," he said. "I think Councillor Vaughan is suggesting that it's a crisis and it's an emergency. These numbers suggest that it may not be."
Minnan-Wong also suggested that homeless people who sleep on the streets do so by choice because they prefer not to sleep in shelters.
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, who also voted against Vaughan's motion, accused those depicting an emergency in the shelter system of "crying wolf."
"You know what happens when you cry wolf. When it really does become a problem... then the action isn't taken," Holyday told council. "This matter is before the committee where it should be, and it will be dealt with in the proper way, and that's what we should let happen here."
Before the council meeting, OCAP held a press conference in the City Hall rotunda at which they pledged to occupy Metro Hall and turn it into a homeless shelter on March 7 if the city refused to open more bed space. The group staged a similar action last Friday outside Mayor Rob Ford's office.
After council shot down Vaughan's motion, OCAP leader John Clarke stormed out of the meeting with his followers and promised to go ahead with the Metro Hall plan.
"We're not in a position to wait for their deliberations, for all kinds of stats to be kicked around in a committee meeting and then council to debate it," said Clarke. "Action needs to be taken now."