Housing advocates and members of the homeless community gathered outside a downtown church on Tuesday, December 11, to mark a grim milestone: six people dead on Toronto's streets in the previous month, the most since May 2007.
Those who attend the monthly Homeless Memorial at the Church of the Holy Trinity say things are bad and will only get worse if council approves the cuts to front-line shelter services proposed in the 2013 budget.
Like all city departments, the shelter administration was told by the mayor's office to flatline its budget to 2012 levels. On paper that means a 0per cent increase, but critics say in practice it means cutbacks.
"They're saying there are no service cuts, when in fact there are very big service cuts," says Michael Shapcott, director of housing at the Wellesley Institute and a regular attendee at the memorial.
The city is budgeting for 41,172 fewer "shelter bed nights" next year, each of which represents one homeless person sleeping in one shelter bed for one night. That's a 2.9 per cent reduction from 2012, when 1,416,766 bed nights were provided.
Despite officially operating at 94 per cent occupancy this year, shelter services reported extended wait times for beds, and many observers believe the system is already at capacity. Shapcott says that by cutting bed nights next year, capacity is being set at "dangerously low" levels.
"People who need a bed are likely going to be turned away," he says, "and probably on nights when they absolutely need it most - when the weather's really bad and their personal health and lives are at risk."
Capacity at all types of shelters is being reduced, except at one women's shelter that would see a slight increase. Hardest-hit would be the Family Residence, a Scarborough facility the city says can currently accommodate 52 families. Its capacity would be slashed by 24 per cent next year, the equivalent of 21,900 bed nights.
According to Patricia Anderson, a shelter services spokesperson, the department is budgeting for lower occupancy rates because changing "geopolitical factors" are expected to reduce demand by refugees, who make up a significant portion of the family sector of shelter users.
She stresses that no beds are actually being removed, and if greater capacity is needed the department will report back to council on how to open up more bed nights by reallocating funds within the existing budget. Anderson also argues that some vital funding choices are out of the city's hands.
While Toronto administers homeless services, roughly two-thirds of the funding for shelter beds comes from the province. In previous years that funding has been needs-based, but last summer Queen's Park quietly announced it was switching to a capped funding model in 2013 and will determine at the start of the year how many beds it will fund based on projected, not real-time, need. Any shelter space over and above the pre-set amount will have to be paid for wholly by the city.
"There is no doubt the new provincial funding model transfers to the city the financial risk" of increased shelter needs, Anderson says.
But potentially even more significant than the province's switch to the capped funding model is the gradual elimination of both provincial and federal initiatives intended to tackle the roots of homelessness.
A federal affordable housing construction grant is being cut in half next year, by $24.5 million, and $35.3 million in funding from the joint provincial-federal Social Housing Renovation and Retrofit Program will expire. The federal Social Housing Reserve Fund, established in 2001, will be tapped out next year after the city makes one last withdrawal of $26 million.
While other levels of government bear some of the responsibility, Councillor Janet Davis says the mayor's office has simply passed on the cuts without objection. She accuses Rob Ford of staying silent on the housing file despite his close ties to the Conservative government in Ottawa.
"When he's fishing with the prime minister, is he talking about housing? Obviously not," says Davis.