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OCAP's Gaetan Heroux speaks on the steps of Metro Hall.
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Brian DuBourdieu, centre, is surrounded by security and protesters.
Dozens of anti-poverty protesters streamed into Metro Hall on Thursday morning and declared its rotunda a homeless shelter, in the latest action to draw attention to what activists say is a crisis on Toronto's streets.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty announced its intention to stage the sit-in last month, after city council voted not to hold an emergency debate on the state of the shelter system.
The group and its supporters say that the shelter system is dangerously overcrowded, with homeless people reportedly waiting several days for beds. There have been 42 homeless deaths in Toronto since the start of 2012, according to activists.
"With City officials maintaining the reckless position that this is an acceptable and safe situation, OCAP is left with no choice but to act to open shelter itself," the group said in a press release Wednesday.
Metro Hall, which houses municipal government offices, was targeted because during the 1990s it opened its doors to the homeless after several well-publicized deaths.
"By the city's own admission, the shelters are at 96 per cent capacity, which is actually ridiculously overcrowded," said OCAP's Lisa Schofield. "The conditions in the shelters are awful and brutal, and it's forcing a lot of people on to the streets."
"In the past the city has opened up additional shelter space when capacity has been at or over 90 per cent. So we're calling on the city to bring back that policy... and open up Metro Hall as emergency shelter space."
Police and Metro Hall security had ample warning of the protest, and initially seemed well prepared to prevent the sit-in. All but one street entrance to the building had been sealed off Thursday morning, and security was admitting people who work there one by one.
Shortly after 11:15 am, protesters carrying signs that read "No More Homeless Deaths" tried to make their way inside. They were allowed to enter, but were told to leave sleeping bags, mattresses, and other bedding behind. Once they had reached the rotunda however, several people burst in carrying 18 sleeping bags between them.
One of them, Brian DuBourdieu, was grabbed by security. But as a guard grappled with him, the pair were quickly surrounded by protesters who shouted "Let him go!" and "De-escalate!" After a tense few moments, the guard released him.
Afterwards, DuBourdieu said he had slipped into the building with his sleeping bags, using a side entrance.
"We were waiting in the back kind of around the corner," he said. "I saw the door - someone going out - and we rushed the door. There was only two security guards, so we kind of pushed our way past them."
At a noon press conference called to address the protest, Mayor Rob Ford denied there is any problem in the shelter system.
Reading from a prepared statement, he accused OCAP of "creating a false sense of crisis," and stated there is no need to open up more bed spaces because the system is "working great." He called the sit-in "a cheap publicity stunt."
"We don't need more spaces. We have over 100 empty beds a night," he said. "We have to be efficient. You want to open up 500 empty beds? That's just a waste of taxpayer money... I'm not going to just throw money at the problem."
But speaking earlier in the day on the steps of Metro Hall, OCAP's Gaetan Heroux said that empty beds are not a reliable indicator of how well the system is functioning, and that conditions inside homeless facilities have become intolerable.
"This is not about beds, exactly. You have to be able to go somewhere where you feel safe, and you have room to move," he said through a bullhorn.
As of 2 pm, protestors were still in the rotunda, and said they intended to stay all day. At a similar action outside Ford's office on February 15, roughly 40 protesters were arrested when they refused to leave voluntarily.