A homeless shelter was violating city policy by providing personal information about its clients to the police, NOW has learned. When shelter administration learned about the practice, they told staff to put an end to it.
The breach came to light when Councillor Michelle Berardinetti put a motion on next week's council agenda requesting that shelter staff be allowed to run "warrant checks" on potential clients.
The motion says the checks were "previously secured through the Toronto Police Service," but the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration recently told employees that they could no longer perform them. "This change removes a tool previously available to front line shelter staff to protect clients and on-site shelter staff," the motion says.
But a spokesperson for SSHA says staff have never been authorized to perform police checks on clients.
"SSHA staff recently learned of one shelter that was in the habit of sharing resident information with local police and we have directed them to stop as doing so is inconsistent with the shelter's obligation to protect client information," wrote Patricia Anderson in an email. "The Shelter Standards make it clear that when handling resident information, shelter staff must not disclose personal information about a shelter resident without a signed consent from the resident."
Anderson did not identify which shelter was involved or say what type of information staff shared with police or how many clients were affected.
In an interview Berardinetti said employees at the Second Base Youth Shelter in Scarborough had asked for the authority to do the checks. The councillor said the shelter at Kennedy and Eglinton, which houses up to 56 youth aged 16 to 21, has a history of security issues. In one incident, a man was taken to hospital after suffering serious stab wounds at the facility last June.
The executive director of Second Base did not return a request for comment on Friday. But a spokesperson for CUPE 4358 provided a written statement to NOW from a person she described as a longtime Second Base employee.
"Our concerns are about the safety of everyone who uses or visits the shelter - from donors to workers to the vulnerable young people who are residents of Second Base," says the employee, who wishes to remain anonymous. She says the directive to stop the practice "leaves us all in an unsafe position."
"We don't want to breach confidentiality for anyone who needs our services, but the shelter can have a high-risk and transient population; we have to know who is coming in."
"Warrant checks" is not an official police term, but Berardinetti said they could cover everything from an outstanding warrant to a client's criminal history. She said a positive check wouldn't necessarily result in someone being turned away, but employees "would at least be aware of the history of violence and they could make sure and take precautions as necessary." She said allowing the checks is a "no-brainer."
Councillor Gord Perks, on the other hand, calls Berardinetti's motion "absolutely terrible."
He doubts whether it's legal to permit staff to ask about client's criminal history, and argues that doing so goes against the city's obligation to provide shelter for anyone in need.
"A society should offer people a bed, period. I don't care who you are," he said.
He also warns that many homeless people have had negative experiences with authorities, and would be deterred from using shelters if they knew they were going to be screened by the cops.
"Creating a hurdle to get into the shelter system just increases the likelihood of people freezing to death on our streets," Perks said.
Cathy Crowe, a renowned street nurse and distinguished visiting practitioner at Ryerson University, says the whole situation is "worrisome." She's concerned that staff may be feeling unsafe, but stresses that their needs have to be balanced with those of the homeless population. She says there are human rights and legal issues to consider.
Police screening "could mean exclusion from service," Crowe said. "Is that discrimination?"
She noted that police likely aren't checking clients at city-run long-term care homes. "There's other city institutions where if we were hearing about this happening we'd be pretty alarmed," she said.
Crowe hopes that someone at the city, possibly the ombudsman, will do an "ethical review" of the issue after it goes to council.
Noted social justice lawyer Peter Rosenthal says the giving shelter clients' personal information to the police may not be "appropriate," but he doesn't see how it would violate any criminal laws.