Gaetan Heroux speaks to reporters outside of Seaton House.
Following a violent assault earlier this week at Toronto's largest homeless shelter, anti-poverty activists are calling on the city to address what they say is a crisis in the hostel system.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty urged the city to make the shelter system safer at a press conference Thursday outside Seaton House, the 434-bed facility on George St. where early Tuesday morning a man was struck on the head with a fire extinguisher by a fellow shelter user. The man suffered severe injuries and was taken to hospital.
"We are really, really concerned about the fact that men are going into shelters where they should be protected, and they come out in an ambulance," said Gaetan Heroux, a veteran homelessness advocate and OCAP member. "Today we say, this has to stop. Hostel services has to be held accountable. The city has to make sure these places are safe."
For weeks OCAP has been hearing of violent incidents at shelters across the city, Heroux said. According to the organization, at the Maxwell Meighen facility there have been three or four serious incidents in the past few weeks alone, and two months ago there was reportedly a brawl at the shelter over the use of a TV. In a separate incident, someone pulled a knife.
According to OCAP, violence is on the rise as the result of a systematic reduction of shelter services in the downtown area.
"What that does, is it creates extreme tension on the existing shelters. Extreme tension, which means that the overcrowding will often lead to violence. Sometimes it's minor. What we're seeing now is some of this is much more serious," Heroux said.
Several shelter users who gathered around Heroux as he addressed the media agreed that the system is overburdened.
"The incident with the fire extinguisher is just a culmination of things that go on all the time," said Frank Coburn, who is living at Seaton house while he awaits to hear from the Yonge Street Mission about a housing placement. "On any given day there are at least 10 to 15 physical altercations, not to talk about the verbal altercations. There's just too much stress, too many people crowding together, too many people warehoused."
But Pat Anderson, outreach manager for the city's homelessness support program, says there's no evidence that overcrowding is leading to an up-tick in shelter assaults.
"There is no indication, that we've seen, that there is an increase in violence in the shelter system, or that the incident on [Tuesday] night was related to shelter conditions at all," she said.
She argued that while altercations between the system's users are not infrequent, there are other contributing factors besides how many people are sharing the space.
"Shelters are communal environments that bring together a variety of individuals of different backgrounds, at a stressful time of their lives," she said.
Anderson noted that the night of the Seaton House attack, the city-wide men's shelter system was operating at 92 per cent capacity, a level she said was not abnormally high. In all of Toronto there were 192 beds available and Anderson said, "no doubt there were beds available at Seaton House that night."
But Michael Shapcott, director of affordable housing at the Wellesley Institute, says that operating at anything over 90 per cent capacity is unsafe, and can lead not only to problems between shelter users, but also the spread of communicable diseases.
"When occupancy goes above 90 per cent it presents real dangers," Shapcott said. "[Ninety-two per cent] is an extremely high, and yes, a dangerously high level."
In 1999, council approved a 90 per cent occupancy rate for the shelter system, but it has consistently missed that target. Shapcott says the city does "a lousy job of actually counting the number of people in the system" and that average city-wide occupancy rates can mask the fact that there are few beds available in the downtown core on any given night.
OCAP is calling on the city to expand its shelter system and prevent the shuttering of the School House, a 55-bed facility next to Seaton House that is the process of shutting down.