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People asleep on the floor of the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, Thursday Jan. 25.
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As Toronto entered the fourth day of an extreme cold weather alert on Thursday, homeless people trying to escape the frigid temperatures reported that there was no room for them in city shelters.
When the alert was issued on Monday, it automatically triggered emergency measures from the Shelter Support and Housing Administration that are designed to cope with higher numbers of people seeking respite from subzero temperatures. Among them were increased outreach to homeless people in the downtown core, the distribution of TTC tokens at drop-in centres, and the addition of 172 emergency beds throughout the system.
According to the shelter administration, only 76 of the 172 emergency beds were used on Wednesday night, leaving 96 beds vacant, most of them at facilities in the downtown core.
But despite the scores of unused emergency beds, shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday morning this reporter saw more than a dozen people sleeping in the lobby of the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, or SHARC, the nerve centre of the shelter system where people come to be assigned available beds.
Men and women were lying on chairs or on the floor of the Peter St. facility. One person lay across three chairs, with an empty wheelchair beside them. Several more people were reportedly sleeping on a lower floor of the building, out of view from street level.
A man named Rob, who declined to give his last name, was outside the centre having a cigarette early Thursday morning. He said he came to SHARC several days before but was told there were no available beds. He claimed he was put on a waiting list and spent the next few evenings sleeping in the lobby until Wednesday, when he was given one of the 40 transitional housing beds upstairs.
He said the wait was typical of the shelter system when the weather gets bad.
"Sometimes you won't get a bed for a week if it's cold," he said.
"If we're sleeping here on the floor, on these couches, there's not a bed in a shelter anywhere."
A woman named Alisha was also smoking outside early Thursday morning. She too declined to give her last name, but said she lives in Brockville, ON, where her local church periodically pays for her to come to Toronto for dental treatment.
"Normally it's warmer so I don't really have to worry about a place to stay," she said. "But I was here on Sunday night, and I stayed here [in the SHARC lobby] cause there was no bed. And I just showed up now and they told me I'm staying here again."
Frontline outreach workers have reported similar scenes at the referral centre since icy arctic air settled over the city on Monday. Despite the city stats showing free beds, they're unsure how much space there actually is in the system.
"There's still a lot of people around that don't have a place to go, which makes us wonder," said Anne Marie Batten of Street Health. "It's always a challenge to get exact numbers [from the city].
"Why are people camping on the floor there if there are beds?"
Reports of homeless people being shut out come on the heels of cuts to shelter services. The 2013 budget approved by council earlier this month included 41,000 fewer shelter beds nights compared to last year.
Patricia Anderson, a spokesperson for the shelter administration, couldn't explain why people said they were told there were no beds available while the system showed vacancies. She would not comment on individual cases because she was not familiar with the details, but said that it is "not acceptable" for anyone to wait several nights for a space.
She speculated that some of the people in the SHARC lobby overnight Wednesday may have been waiting for their referral request to be processed, or may have refused the offer of a shelter bed but still wanted a safe place to sleep. SHARC is open 24 hours and offers "street respite" to those who don't want to go to a shelter.
Many homeless people refuse to go to city shelters, citing crowded conditions, fears of bed bugs or violence, or other reasons. Others avoid specific facilities that have particularly bad reputations.
Asked if the shelter system has the capacity to cope with cold weather demand, Anderson replied, "All I can say is that there are 172 beds put on during extreme cold weather alerts, and 76 people slept in those beds last night."
Councillor Kristyan Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre - Rosedale) raised concerns about emergency shelter capacity last fall, when homeless people were forced off the streets by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. She says she's perplexed by the conflicting reports of bed availability.
"It's very confusing, and I have to admit that I'm very frustrated," she says.
She believes city stats that indicate there are vacant beds, but worries that conditions in shelters may be so poor that people are deterred from using them.
"We have to understand what is stopping people from using the shelters if the shelter beds are available," Wong-Tam says. "While [we're] trying to sort this out, we have people who are not getting into warm spaces when the weather is -34ºC with the wind chill factor... That's the most tragic thing."
The extreme cold alert was canceled Friday morning.