No safe place

Street safety patrol pushes 24-hour refuge for women being shut out of the city's shelter system

In the very early hours of Sunday, October 13, a team of women armed with posters formed what they called an “emergency safety patrol” and fanned out into the Dundas-Sherbourne neighbourhood.

They were responding to footage on a security videocam taken September 22 at Sherbourne and Dundas between 4 and 5 am. The images showed two men, one after the other, sexually assaulting a woman, presumed homeless, sitting on some steps.

The group’s mission, which lasted from 2 to 6 am, was to alert other women of the threat – something they say police have not done – and to act as a presence in an area where women are routinely failed by full-to-capacity shelters.

By morning they’d put up 350 posters depicting the two suspects seen in the video, both white men in their teens or early 20s with short brown hair, one wearing a golf shirt, the other a dark hoodie.

“If that woman was outside at 4 am, my guess is she had no safe place to be,” says Danielle Koyama, one of the patrol organizers, a frontline worker on the downtown east side and a member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

On October 10, Koyama was part of a delegation – including some women who use shelters – who went to the city’s Hostel Services Department to demand a plan to expand shelter beds and, in the interim, more safe spaces immediately accessible to all women 24 hours a day.

Of Toronto’s 3,836 shelter beds, about one-sixth are for women, according to a report issued in March. It says the 537 women’s beds operate at 99 per cent capacity, while single men are allotted significantly more spaces and see lower occupancy – around 91 per cent.

Those who work with street people say women are being turned away daily. “Hostel Services is conceding that the system is maxed out,” says Koyama. “Until there’s proper housing and safe shelter, women need somewhere to go.”

Those without homes face all the risks of sleeping outside, with the added fear of sexual assault. And their options for safety are limited. The city runs one all-night drop-in at the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre at 129 Peter, but social agencies complain that this is far from the west and east ends, where other services for the poor are located. Sometimes all-night coffee shops are the best alternative.

“They are afraid,” says Carol Allain, manager of Sistering’s drop-in services. “You can’t just find a corner and sleep then you’re vulnerable. We have a small daybed program, and as soon as we open women are here and might sleep the whole day.”

The woman in the security video didn’t report the assault – it was reportedly discovered when the camera’s owners were looking for something else. And while the men’s faces were caught on camera, no arrests have been made.

A police spokesperson could not be reached for comment, but a press release issued by the force includes photos of the alleged offenders.

Patricia Anderson, manager of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, says more shelter spaces have been made available since a call-out to operators several months ago.

“The six beds put forward for women as a result of that request are already available nightly,” she tells NOW. “For the coming winter, we are also working to open 30 beds for women in a single location close to the downtown core. We expect these to be available as of mid-November. We have also secured 15 beds for women and 12 for men for use during extreme weather and when an extreme cold weather alert is called.”

Whether this eases the situation remains to be seen. Meanwhile, says Sistering’s Allain, “a lot of times we’re spending the whole day trying to find beds for three or four women and we still don’t find any.”

Councillor Joe Mihevc, vice-chair of the Community Development and Recreation Committee, says there’s another way to take the pressure off the shelter system: beef up the refuges for women fleeing domestic violence.

A number of homeless shelters take in women escaping abuse, he points out, noting that caring for these women is technically a provincial responsibility.

“If I had my perfect way, the first thing I would do is get the province to open more violence-against-women accommodation. They view the city of Toronto shelter system as the relief valve, and that has to stop.”

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