Winter may be over and extreme weather alerts a thing of the past, but the city is still struggling to reduce overcrowding in its homeless shelters.
Following a series of high-profile protests and reports of a chronic bed shortage, council voted on April 4 to set a new system-wide occupancy target of 90 per cent.
But four weeks after that decision occupancy rates are hovering around 94 per cent, only slightly below the 96 per cent level shelters were operating at before the vote.
According to the motion successfully put forward by Councillor Joe Mihevc at the April meeting, the new target was to be reached by deploying up to 172 "flex" beds on a permanent basis. The cots were previously used only in emergencies. Staff were also directed to look into opening up a new shelter, if necessary.
The flex beds have been added at 18 shelters across the city, increasing the maximum capacity of the system to 4,117. But those extra spaces are being filled almost as quickly as they can be deployed, and shelters are still a long way off the 90 per cent level that homelessness advocates say is crucial to giving the complex system enough headroom to ensure that everyone who needs a bed can get one.
Patricia Anderson, a spokesperson for the Shelter Support and Housing Administration, maintains that the city is committed to reaching the 90 per cent goal.
"That's exactly what we're trying to do," Anderson says. "As you can see from the numbers, we haven't reached it yet."
But although occupancy rates remain high, some organizations that operate city-funded shelters report that making the flex beds permanent has already resulted in significant improvements for those in need.
"It's a been a good move and I think in the long run it will pull some pressure off the system," says Bob Duff, executive director of the St. Simon's Shelter at Bloor and Parliament. "There's light at the end of the tunnel."
Not only are there now more places for the homeless to sleep, he says, but before the council vote, anyone who used a flex bed had to be sent to the Peter Street referral centre the next morning, where city staff would then try to place them in a free bed at one of the 57 shelters across the city.
Now that the beds are permanent, clients who use them can simply return to the same shelter the following night.
"And that really provides a significant degree of stability for that individual," says Duff.
Mark Aston, executive director of the Fred Victor organization, agrees that the situation has improved.
He says that although the official occupancy rate before the council vote was 96 per cent, certain sectors of the system were maxed out. He points to Fred Victor's Bethlehem United facility in North York, one of the few shelters that serves couples, and the only one in Toronto that accepts pets. It's in high demand throughout the year.
"We were running at I think about 100 per cent occupancy [in 2012], and many of the other providers that I spoke to were in the same situation," Aston says. "Anecdotally we were hearing that people were having difficulty getting access to shelter."
The addition of ten flex beds to Bethlehem's complement of 60 means Fred Victor can now take in more couples and people with animals who might otherwise have nowhere else to go. Aston says the ten extra beds are full most nights.
But some operators and activists feel that the new flex bed policy isn't enough, and may be contributing to the crowding problem by cramming more people into spaces intended to hold smaller numbers.
At the Salvation Army's 108-bed Gateway shelter on Jarvis, there is no room in the regular dorms to add flex beds, so every night staff tear down tables in the facility's drop-in centre to make space for ten cots. They have to be packed up again at 5:30 am so that clients can be served breakfast at the drop-in.
"It's definitely a strain for us," says Jeff Mathewson, Gateway's program supervisor. "It's a burden on our night shift and it's not ideal for the guys actually sleeping on these ten cots."
John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty says the city must open up a new shelter instead of simply adding beds.
"As we've said all along, there's going to have to be space opened up, there's going to have to be a facility created," he says.
Clarke says OCAP, which held sit-ins outside Mayor Rob Ford's office and at Metro Hall earlier this year, will restart its protest activity unless it sees movement towards a new shelter soon.
"We're really preparing for another round on this because the political response has been totally inadequate," he says.
The administration is "exploring the option" of opening up new shelter space, according to Anderson, but she says she can't provide any details at this point. Mihevc says it's his understanding that staff is pondering either opening a new, standalone facility or expanding an existing one. He believes it's unlikely a brand new building will be constructed.
Plans for a new shelter could come forward as early as the fall, when Shelter Support will table a plan to deal with recent cuts to provincial housing and homeless assistance programs.
But unlike the change in the flex bed policy, which required no change to the shelter department's budget and sailed through council in a 40-1 vote, opening a brand new facility would likely require councillors to approve additional funding. Under the current administration's cost-cutting regime, that could prove contentious.
Mihevc is confident his colleagues would authorize the spending, however.
"I think council is prepared to act. I do. I was surprised by the strength of the [April] vote," he says. "I think that somehow the affront of homelessness weighs heavily on councillors, and I think that they would be willing to loosen the purse strings."