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City Council Rejects Call for Emergency Debate on Homeless Shelters

Housing advocates demand action as shelter occupancy remains near capacity.

Protestors unfurl a banner before being removed from the council chamber. Photo by Desmond Cole.

Toronto City Council has rejected a proposal for an emergency debate on homelessness. This morning as their meeting was getting underway Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) asked his colleagues to consider adding the issue to the meeting’s agenda. After a series of impassioned speeches in which many councillors across the political spectrum expressed concern about the state of homelessness in Toronto, but differing views on how urgent the situation is, council voted 24-20 in favour of Vaughan’s motion, short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. One of the municipal government’s committees will look at the issue soon—but not soon enough, said many today, as we are in the midst of a harsher winter than we’ve seen in a while.

After the vote frustrated observers, many from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, shouted at councillors, condemning their decision. Council’s speaker, Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), immediately ordered a recess, and had the council chamber cleared. Dozens of police and security officers had been on standby in and around the council chamber, prepared for this eventuality.

Activists have been working to build momentum on this issue in recent weeks. Vaughan first pledged to bring the matter before council last Friday, as he addressed demonstrators who staged an all-day sit-in inside City Hall. And this morning, before council began its meeting, OCAP convened a press conference to urge councillors to take immediate action on shelter access. “Lives are being lost and lives are being endangered,” OCAP organizer John Clarke said. “If [the motion] is rejected, then essentially city council is taking the position that it is prepared to abandon human beings.”

Clarke also set a March 7 deadline for council to act, saying that OCAP and its partners are prepared to “open up” Metro Hall, the municipal building at King and John streets, to shelter the homeless with another sit-in. “We will ask all decent-minded people in the community to come with us, with homeless people, go to Metro Hall, and open it up as a shelter,” Clarke told reporters.

During council’s discussion deputy Mayor Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) dismissed advocates who claim there is a crisis in shelter access: “That’s hearsay. We don’t make decisions based on hearsay. We’ve got expert staff who are telling us there’s occupancy in the shelters.” He and several other councillors said that staff have assured them that there is a sufficient number of beds.

This is a point on which there is a great deal of disagreement, however. Victory Lall, a registered nurse with Health Providers Against Poverty, cited concerns about overcrowding and unsanitary conditions she hears from clients she refers to shelters. “It is evident that our city is in a state of homelessness emergency,” she said today, adding that front-line workers are seeing grave access issues. Some councillors are also concerned that the information they have been receiving from staff is incomplete. “The shelter system is packed to the gills,” Vaughan said when he introduced his motion, citing one shelter in his ward that is supposed to house 37 people, but which on a typical night nears 70.

Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), the chair of the Community Recreation and Development Committee—the committee which will be looking into this issue in more detail—has pledged to obtain more information from City staff on shelter occupancy and report back to council.


  • OgtheDim

    So, if people looking for shelter say there is an issue, but city staff say there isn’t, its considered hearsay cause its the staff’s reputations being besmirched?

    But when its how much we pay a person to water the plants, its finding gravy?

    I just love how pols selectively use that word hearsay.

  • vic

    Great article, Desmond. After watching East Side Showdown this morning, I give much respect to the work OCAP does in Toronto. I am inspired to get involved.
    -Victoria, former DECA..

  • Gordon Yarley

    This makes me fucking sick. Ford and company are such assholes.

  • OMX

    OCAP should hand out Don Bosco football jerseys to the homeless, then Ford would call in TTC buses for shelter, to protect them from the elements.

  • kole

    Ford (and City staff) say that there were 167 free city beds (4% of the nearly 4,000 in the city) that weren’t filled on a recent night and thus conclude that there are enough beds, however:

    (1) Demand for beds fluctuates based on weather, etc. Those working in the shelter system and with the homeless know that on many nights, particularly on the coldest/snowiest nights, there simply aren’t enough shelter beds for people. That is why there have been some 40 odd homeless deaths in Toronto in the past 12 months, including 7 in 2013 alone.

    (2) Even assuming that there are beds that are free in the GTA, a homeless person might find that there are no open beds in their neighborhood and staff may not be able to pinpoint exactly where in the City there are open beds. How is a homeless person facing a bed shortage in the East end, supposed to know that there are beds in the West end? Even if they find this information out, how are they supposed to get to where there are beds if they don’t have money for transportation?

    (3) Finally, the fact that many homeless people chose not to stay in the shelter system is because the shelter system suffers from serious overcrowding, poor conditions inside the shelters (caused by the fact that they are under-resourced, etc). Those working with the homeless have compared the situation in the shelter system to a ‘crisis’ for the past few decades, with little to no improvement regardless of administration. The cuts and current funding levels create a problem erodding the quality and sustainability of shelters as an option of the homeless. The solution isn’t to maintain current funding levels or to cut them, but to increase space within the shelter system (i.e. more beds) and improve the quality of facilities for those who are homeless.

    (4) Ultimately, these are all temporary and band-aid solutions if we’re not going to talk about a municipal housing strategy that gives people a roof over their heads on a permanent basis (housing is after all a human right). This means reforming TCHC to reflect the interests of residents in its buildings, as well as expanding the stock of affordable housing for people. There’s a bunch of empty condo-buildings and unsold condo units that are just waiting to be occupied! :)

    (5) Ford has to go….

  • KennyCraig

    Do those 20 councillors think that homeless die for old age?
    Is it possible to be so disgustingly indifferent to the avoidable deaths of human beings?

    • Neville Ross

      They do, think so, much like this unfortunate lady did 30 years ago.

      • KennyCraig

        Thank you for the very interesting link. Sad stories, and surely not the last ones. Someone is out there, doomed to die in a week or two, or next winter. And the only impedement to save them lies in people’s consciousnesses.