Advocates for the homeless have been protesting what they say is a critical shortage of bed space.
Why do homeless people report being turned away from shelters, when the system shows dozens of empty beds? We may be closer to an answer.
A city report released on Monday, March 11, reveals that shelters are operating closer to 100 per cent capacity than was previously thought, and are using beds on a daily basis that are supposed to be reserved for emergencies.
The update was requested by councillors on the Community Development and Recreation Committee after anti-poverty advocates and the media raised questions about people left bedless in the winter months.
"It paints a very dismal picture," says Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. "The shelters are pretty much at full capacity, and the conditions are crowded, which corroborates what we've been hearing from the front-line service providers."
While the report says internal statistics show there are beds available every night, it also indicates actual occupancy levels are "tighter" than the data suggest. This is because many of the so-called "available" spaces are reserved for people with specific needs, and are not open to the general homeless population.
On a typical night in February, according to the document, the system was at 96 per cent capacity, with 167 of 3,836 beds "available." But more than half of those 167 were in "transitional" facilities that cater to clients with special needs.
Transitional programs include Robertson House, which serves young pregnant women, and Bellwoods House, whose clientele is older women with a history of mental illness. Empty beds in these facilities show up in the system as "available" even though most of the homeless would not qualify for them.
Shelter administration spokesperson Patricia Anderson confirms to NOW that the discrepancy means the permanent system is effectively nearer to 100 per cent full than the 96 per cent figure indicates. "That's what that's suggesting," she says.
Some sectors are more stretched than others. On the sample night in February, the report demonstrates, facilities for young women were at 99 per cent capacity, with only eight beds city-wide showing as free. Facilities for couples had no empty beds at all.
In recent months, amidst conflict over whether the city is coping with demand, Mayor Rob Ford and other council members have deployed the 96 per cent stat as evidence that there is room to spare.
In a speech last Friday at in which he declared shelters were "working great," Ford said, "On average, about 3 to 4 per cent [of beds] are empty every night. How many empty beds should we have?"
Although it's not known exactly how close to full the shelters are, the report says the administration has dipped into its reserve of emergency beds night after night.
There are 172 beds reserved for extreme weather that can also be opened up when staff deem it necessary. In the first four weeks of January, at least some of these slots were utilized every night except January 11, even though beds in the permanent system showed as "available."
On most nights that month, anywhere between a dozen and 20 emergency spaces were typically made available. The highest number pressed into service on a single night was 92, during a cold-weather alert on January 24.
Anderson says that the emergency beds can be used when no permanent beds are immediately available. But they might also be used if the only free slots are
unacceptable to clients, either because they're in shelters away from downtown or in notoriously rough facilities like Seaton House.
That occupancy rates are approaching 100 per cent and the system is relying on emergency resources could explain recent reports of people being shut out of shelters or forced to sleep in the lobby of the Peter St. referral centre.
It's clear that the city is having difficulty matching the homeless with available beds, says Beth Wilson, senior researcher with Social Planning Toronto.
Depending on whether shelter users can be directed to an appropriate facility, where the shelter is located and how accurate the bed-tracking process is, people could be waiting hours, if not longer, according to Wilson.
"It feels like a machine that is breaking down. It's difficult for it to run at this capacity in a way that can serve people well," says Wilson.
Wilson's group recently surveyed 12 community organizations that operate 15 shelters on behalf of the city. Ten responded that they were full at the time of the survey, and all 12 reported having to turn people away at some time in the previous month.
She argues that the city must revive the policy of opening up extra beds when occupancy hits 90 per cent, a practice council approved in the 1990s. "It just gives some breathing room," she says.
The city report will be considered by the Community Development Committee on Monday (March 18.) Although it lists some "opportunities for system improvements," including more accurate bed counting practices and better staff training, it does not identify a need for more spaces.
It does suggest, however, that a third party could be enlisted to conduct "random checks" of bed access.
"I'm going to push really hard for that," says Councillor Joe Mihevc, who sits on the committee. "I've been in this game for so long, and there's always been a dispute around the numbers. Staff say one thing, and the advocates say another. Let's get [someone independent] who's going to help us with the numbers."