Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam addresses council, October 2, 2012. Photo by Ben Spurr.
When city council meets on Monday for the final session of this term, an important item will be missing from the agenda. A proposal to set up two 24-hour drop-in spaces for street-involved women, the first facilities of their kind in Toronto, will not be going to a vote.
It was supposed to. In June council asked city staff to report back this month on funding for the project, with the goal of opening at least one drop-in by December, before winter sets in. But the report wasn't submitted and the project has now been delayed until sometime next year.
The setback is a blow for homeless women and their advocates, who argue that the drop-ins are desperately needed to fill a gap in the services available to some of Toronto's most vulnerable residents.
"We're pretty angry and upset," says Danielle Koyama, a Downtown East community worker and spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. "The women's shelters are full and women don't have any place to go."
The women's sector of the homeless shelter system is crowded, operating at around 96 per cent capacity, according to recent city stats. Even if a bed is available there are some women-including sex workers and those use drugs or have mental health issues-for whom shelters aren't always suitable.
Those who can't find a bed are at risk for sexual assault and other dangers, and drop-ins would provide a low-barrier safe space for women to get off the street whenever they choose to access basic services like showers, laundry, meals and counseling.
"There's clearly a need for women to be protected overnight," says Linsey MacPhee, manager of the Toronto Drop-In Network. She says a string of sexual assaults has recently hit the Downtown East. According to police, earlier this month a man forcibly confined and sexually assaulted a sex worker near Dundas and Sherbourne.
Street-involved women "are continuing to be unsupported by the homeless service system," MacPhee says.
Patricia Anderson, spokesperson for the Shelter Support and Housing Administration, says the delay in setting up the drop-ins isn't the fault of city staff, and instead was caused by a mix-up at a city committee.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam first proposed the December target in a motion she moved at a meeting of the Community Development and Recreation Committee in April. She says staff told her at the time that opening up a drop-in by the end of the year was feasible.
But before councillors could vote on her motion the committee lost quorum, and the meeting was forced to adjourn. The committee finally approved the plan at its next meeting in May but by that time a month had been lost.
While SSHA staff concluded that the December target was no longer doable, they didn't alert councillors at either the May committee meeting or June council meeting at which the target date was approved. Wong-Tam only realized that staff hadn't written the funding report when the agenda for this month's budget committee came out, and the report wasn't on it.
"City staff did not flag it earlier," she says. Anderson counters that the motion was approved without discussion at the May and June meetings, and councillors didn't ask any questions of staff.
Frustrated by the delay, Wong-Tam has asked City Manager Joe Penacchetti to use his authority to open a temporary drop-in over the winter months until permanent facilities can be approved.
There is no timeline for when they could be up and running. The SSHA expects to make a funding proposal for the drop-ins, which could each cost up to $2 million annually, as part of its 2015 budget submission. The budget will likely go to a council vote in January or February next year, under a new council administration.
"We are looking to open the service as soon as possible following budget approval," says Anderson.
Wong-Tam says the drop-in episode is only the latest incident to raise questions about how Shelter Administration staff respond to direction from councillors.
"To be quite honest I've had my own frustrations. And I think that things can probably be run more efficiently," she says.
She points to the drawn-out debate earlier this term over the availability of shelter beds, in which staff initially assured councillors that the city had more than enough beds only to concede months later that the system was almost full.
Wong-Tam is not the only councillor to voice concerns about the SSHA in recent weeks. Earlier this month Councillor Josh Colle accused the department of "botching" the public consultation for a controversial plan to relocate a homeless shelter into his ward. Colle said he had to repeatedly prod staff to get them to reach out to community leaders.