Housing advocates demand action as shelter occupancy remains near capacity.
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.