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“No Leadership” on Emergency Planning for Homeless

Advocates say City officials and politicians failed to communicate a strategy to protect homeless residents from Monday night's severe weather.

Patrons at the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre sleep in the lobby of the building at about 4 a.m. Tuesday morning. Photo by Desmond Cole.

City councillors, outreach workers, and anti-poverty activists are outraged that the City of Toronto failed to consider its most vulnerable residents during emergency preparedness planning in advance of Monday’s storm. They want to know why the Office of Emergency Management and Mayor Rob Ford, who held a press conference on emergency preparedness a few hours before Sandy hit, didn’t communicate a public strategy to protect homeless residents from the unusually severe weather.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) told us in an interview she had contacted Ford’s office to inquire about emergency plans for the homeless, but received no response, and was “very shocked” that Ford failed to even mention those without shelter in Monday’s press conference. “The mayor had no leadership, and no strategy for our homeless population,” Wong-Tam says.

In the days before the storm, Wong-Tam asked public-health and shelter-support officials for plans to house people in need, including plans to publicly inform the public about extra shelter beds and emergency resources. Staff told her by email that people needing relief could “walk into any shelter and advise that they need a bed,” without going through the normal referral and intake processes. But Wong-Tam contends that “this information was not made available to the public, as far as I can tell.”

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a housing outreach and advocacy worker with Sanctuary Toronto, spent much of Monday night trying to get people out of dangerous conditions and into shelters. He told us in a phone interview that “we didn’t see any of the extra resources that the City keeps saying it can release,” adding that “the City is not meeting the need, but continually claims there are extra beds. If they don’t release them in a storm like this, I don’t know when they do release them.”

A manager at Shelter Support and Housing told us by email that the City opened up 41 of its available 165 beds during Monday night’s storm. Curiously, the manager also stated that “there were vacancies remaining in the permanent shelter system, as well.” When we called 311 in the early hours of Tuesday morning to ask about shelter availability, we were told that no beds were available city-wide, and that those looking for relief should make their way to the Streets to Homes referral centre at 129 Peter Street.

Staff at the referral centre were unable to comment on availability of beds, but they were overheard telling patrons that no beds were available. People seeking refuge slept on the floor of the lobby or in chairs.

Michael Shapcott of the Wellesley Institute, a public-health research and policy group, chastised the mayor and City officials in the wake of the storm for failing to gauge the needs of marginalized people. “Rob Ford apparently doesn’t even think about that group of Torontonians who are poor, hungry, homeless.” Shapcott says emergency plans need to be in place months in advance and should include resources for food and for transportation to shelters. “The notion of stockpiling food for 72 hours doesn’t work for residents relying on food banks. Whatever plan may have been sitting on a shelf somewhere at City Hall, it certainly wasn’t in operation that night,” Shapcott said.

Shapcott was also critical of recent measures to save money at Shelter Support and Housing through staff attrition. “I’m not surprised that they don’t have the financial resources,” he said of the department, adding that staff are already stretched to meet needs in non-emergency conditions. Shapcott says the city “clearly doesn’t have the capacity to deal with a major weather crisis or other significant emergency.”

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), who chairs the Community Development and Recreation Committee responsible for shelters, told us there isn’t much the City can do to provide additional emergency relief to those seeking shelters: “We don’t have the resources and we do have something to worry about.” He said that shelters are not the humane way to address homelessness, and that he is working on plans to partner with developers to build transitional housing. “There’s one priority in the City right now, and that’s transitional housing, nothing else,” said Mammoliti.

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