Was it the perennially multitasking Bad Luck? Was it one of the overzealous new hires over at Irony's office? Maybe it was just Doug Holyday. One can't help wondering who called winter back in just as the seasonal emergency shelters were closing, and the city was losing 50 permanent shelter beds for the homeless.
As Monday's (April 25) cold winds reminded us all that this is still Toronto, 40 or so people gathered outside City Hall to remind council of its commitment to get the homeless "off the streets and into homes."
That promise was to have made the ban on sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square a non-issue. But the protesters accused the city of doing just the opposite. Kelly O'Sullivan, president of CUPE Local 4308, which represents the 18 workers at Central Neighbourhood House's closed shelter at 321 Jarvis, was on hand to speak on behalf of those who could have used the beds. "They can't come to the square any more," she said. "We don't know where many of them will end up."
With shelters emerging as the main recourse for city workers armed with new clear-out directives, the logic of the cut at 321 Jarvis is debatable. But Maura Lawless, manager of hostel operations in the city's shelter, housing and support section, doesn't believe it should be characterized as a cut, since the shelter was run by an outside agency. "We did everything we could to keep (321 Jarvis) open," she adds, pointing out that the city helped fund Central Neighbourhood House's search for a new property.
But the agency was on contract from the city, operating in a property for which the city held the lease. Why not simply renew the lease? "We didn't have the authority," Lawless claimed. When pressed, she reveals that the city's main consideration was bylaws, including a recently enacted ceiling of 500 on shelter beds per ward. Since the downtown ward in which the shelter is situated has more than 500 beds, there's a moratorium on new beds and the relocation of old ones. No new service will replace Central Neighbourhood House; the agency hopes to relocate outside the core by September.
Lawless says that of the 51 people sheltered there at the time of the closing, 31 have been referred to appropriate housing agencies by city outreach workers. Eleven "self-discharged" (a likely euphemism for "took a hint"), and nine were sent to other shelters.
Once the number of people processed equalled the number of beds lost, the city considered the matter closed. But O'Sullivan says city workers who came to 321 Jarvis offered referrals only to those who had been staying at the shelter before April 1. "We had over 200 in and out over the past couple of months," she said. "By March, people knew we were closing and there would be an intervention on their behalf. They stuck around."
She says such a strategy meant the city effectively washed its hands of the many others who could use and have used the space. "Just on the first day of April we turned away six people even though we had empty beds,' she says, a consequence of the fact that the number of guests had to be frozen due to the closure.
In a possible contrast, Scott McKean of Dixon Hall, the agency responsible for the seasonal Out of the Cold shelters, says 59 of their guests have been connected with housing thanks not to the city's frontline workers but to Native Men's Residence, which currently has an additional 152 "active cases." NaMeRes was hired by the city to come in and do the outreach, and McKeen seems thrilled with the service so far.
O'Sullivan says that unlike outfits such as NaMeRes, city workers are unable or unwilling to follow up on their referrals to make sure their cases actually end up in homes. And an established org like NaMeRes offers something others can't: many private outreach agencies are staffed by people who have life experience with homelessness. If the city is committed to getting people housing, a better strategy than bylaw enforcement would be giving resources to trusted agencies.
While O'Sullivan is effusive in her thanks for help offered to those at the Jarvis shelter, she says they were simply in the right place at the right time. "These people are being prioritized so the city can save face. But you have to ask why this shelter will have to operate in the fall again." Assuming, of course, they can find a ward west of Pickering willing to host the beds.