Toronto’s emergency-shelter shortfall is morally negligent

Toronto's chronic reliance on volunteer-run, faith-based programs for emergency shelter is clearly a cost-saving decision - and a morally negligent one

While homeless shelters remain persistently near capacity, dark and dirty secrets about Toronto’s emergency-shelter shortfall are being revealed once again. 

Thirteen years after activists with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee demonstrated that the shelter system was failing to offer even the basic necessities recommended by the United Nations for refugee camps, a new report by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty – Out In The Cold: The Crisis In Toronto’s Shelter System – doesn’t beat around the bush.

“For years, the city’s response to the growing problem of destitution has been as inadequate as it has been politically possible to get away with,” the report says. OCAP looks specifically at two areas: the Out of the Cold program and warming centres, the only backup for those who can’t access a shelter bed. 

This is the 30th year Toronto has relied on the volunteer-run, faith-based Out of the Cold program for emergency shelter. That’s 30 years of mostly churches and synagogues opening their gym or basement floors one night a week in the winter to provide 800 shelter spots. 

That’s 30 years of men and women being forced into a nightly migration from basement to basement, 30 years of reliance on a program that does not meet the city’s own shelter standards.

For 30 years the program’s “guests” have slept on mats on the floor, with blankets but likely no pillows not knowing whom they might be sleeping next to, only inches away without access to showers, enough toilets or a locker to put their belongings in. 

For 30 years the city has denied people access to the basic necessities to maintain their health and has placed people at risk of infectious disease and exacerbated illnesses.

There have been deaths in this program before but nothing like the heartbreaking tragedy when a 31-year-old indigenous woman and a 41-year-old man died within 48 hours of each other at two different Out of the Cold locations last month.

While coroners will likely say they were caused by medical issues, the deaths of these young people are a health marker of the devastating toll taken by homelessness. 

Toronto’s chronic reliance on the charitable sector is clearly an intentional cost-saving measure – and a morally negligent one. 

As their doors close this month for the season, Out of the Cold volunteers should demand of the mayor a phase-out of the program and its replacement by shelter beds staffed by social workers, health-care staff and harm-reduction workers.

The scene at one warming centre, as told by a front-line worker.

“I just came back from the warming centre. I got there about 5:50 am before they woke everybody up. What I saw was very disturbing. 

There was a sea of green neon blankets across the floor, and you could not tell where one space ended and another began. The floor was flooded with people sleeping on mats. Under every blanket was a human being – sometimes two. There were anywhere from 80 to 90 people in the space. 

People who didn’t have a mat (I was told by one resident that they have 70 mats) slept on tables and under tables. There must have been 10 to 12 people sleeping under the tables and on the tables against the wall. Those who couldn’t find a space to lie down slept on a chair or on a row of chairs. Others were sitting around tables set up at the end of the space drinking coffee when I arrived. 

One person slept on a chair sitting against the wall with a blanket over their head. Three to four people slept along the hallway leading to the washrooms.

There are no shower facilities in this warming centre. The men’s washroom has two urinals and two toilets, but one of the urinals has a plastic garbage bag taped on it because it is broken. Residents told me they had to ask staff for toilet paper. A man who’s been staying there for the last three days said, “I’ve been sick the whole time, throwing up.”

Since the program is also bursting at the seams, homeless people must now depend on warming centres for shelter. However, Toronto has an erratic record on issuing extreme-cold alerts and opening centres in frigid temperatures. This year marked a creative first: two 24-hour warming centres open for the entire months of January and February regardless of the temperature, although activists had to fight to get money allocated for these in the budget for next winter. 

It’s at the warming centres that the city shows its even darker side – because it actually funds them, albeit meagrely. 

A shelter bureaucrat touring a centre with one of us recently remarked, “This is such a terrific space.” Really? A room meant for card tables, bingo or group activities is transformed nightly into a shelter for 60 to 90 people and perhaps a few dogs. Again, shelter standards don’t apply: if you’re lucky you get one lime-green blanket (a Pan Am Games legacy), and those unable to get a mat sleep under tables or in chairs. And there’s definitely not enough food. 

This, of course, is not the fault of the centre operators, who are forced to be creative and, as in the stone-soup fable, make a little go a long way. 

It’s a dire set of circumstances. 

Both the Fort York and Moss Park armouries have been opened in the past to deal with crowding issues. It’s time to consider doing that again.

Mayor John Tory and council should direct the general manager responsible for shelters to adhere to the directive to limit occupancy to 90 per cent of capacity, immediately find ways to open more emergency shelters and institute a moratorium on shelter closures. Surely, ours is a city that respects the human right to shelter.

Shelter standards by the numbers

3.5 square metres Sleeping area to be provided per person.

Approximately 1 metre Distance between beds that must be maintained for safety reasons (in the event of an evacuation, for instance).

One for every 15 residents Toilets required, up to the first 100 residents and one for every 30 residents thereafter. 

One for every 15 residents Wash basins required (with liquid soap and paper towels).

One for every 20 residents Showers required.

Three Meals adult residents must be served per day, plus at least one healthy snack a day.

Two sheets, a blanket, a pillow case and at least one shower towel Clean linen to be provided.

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse and was a researcher on the Out In The Cold report. Jessica Hales is a primary-health-care nurse practitioner and member of OCAP. | @nowtoronto

Brand Voices

NOW Magazine