The icy blast that gripped the city last week - and is upon us again - saw city officials opening Metro Hall as a warming centre for the homeless. But the effort, say street advocates, was sadly hindered by a lack of cots and refreshments, and by the city's ambivalence about opening the centre again. According to Cathy Crowe, a street nurse with the Queen West Community Health Centre and a member of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC), the city had promised the amenities but they were nowhere to be seen when she checked the hall Saturday (January 11).
"Staff were instructed not to let people sleep,' she says. Others were referred to two drop-in centres in the area, one of which does not serve food.
"We're just reviewing how the operation went," says Elaine Smyer, manager of emergency planning with Toronto shelter, housing and support. She says Metro Hall was opened only as a referral centre to hook people up to existing services.
Some 452 people visited the temporary centre over the weekend, 285 were referred to city shelters and Out of the Cold beds, and workers handed out 1,190 bus tickets. Metro Hall security officers trained in CPR and the volunteer-operated St. John's Ambulance set up emergency medical services.
With a new extreme cold weather advisory, the city will continue to respond by opening 100 additional shelter beds - mats on the floor or possibly cots - in existing shelters and by increasing outreach to those on the streets.
But this, say street workers, is a dangerous strategy. TDRC's Beric German, who works with Street Health, says overcrowding in shelters increases the risk of tuberculosis and influenza infections and bedbugs, among other nasties.
While Crowe found the warming centre very disappointing, she is even more disturbed by news that it's not likely to reopen despite the brutal weather.
She wonders what it will take for the city to open up a new, spacious, properly staffed shelter to deal with the level of need - and why the armoury at Queen and Sherbourne isn't being offered as a temporary space.
Smyer says the city is open to suggestions, but it doesn't sound like the city is prepared to do anything more than talk at this point, even though TDRC has recorded eight deaths among Toronto's homeless in December and January.
"If anyone has a proposal, we'll take a look at it. If we're able to do it, we will. If we can't, well, we try to do what we can."