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Housing Advocates Sound the Alarm On Shelter Access

People attempting to access City shelters this winter are waiting hours, even days, for beds.

Photo by {a href=""}Anton Bielousov{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Photo by {a href=""}Anton Bielousov{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Following recent reports of a man burning to death in a Scarborough park while trying to keep warm, numerous housing advocates are renewing demands that the City explain its apparent lack of shelter beds, and that it reverse cuts to shelters passed as part of the 2013 budget.

Here’s a breakdown of the issue.

What are City staff saying about shelter bed availability in 2013?

According to documents from the 2013 Shelter Support and Housing budget: “The 2013 Recommended Operating Budget reflects a decrease of 41,172 budgeted bed nights to match the 2012 projections and anticipated trends for 2013.” When we asked shelter support manager Pat Anderson to elaborate, she described “a very slight decrease in bed nights,” but no reduction to the city’s approximately 3,800 physical beds. (“Bed night” is a trade term for a one-night stay by a single person.)

As far as the numerous reports from community groups that people are being denied beds, Anderson said: [P]eople should not be told there are no beds available.” She admitted that there may sometimes be waits of “up to several hours,” while a shelter finds and prepares a place for a person to sleep.

Anderson also said that having people sleep at the shelter referral centre on Peter Street, rather than in a bed, is sometimes necessary while the City assesses an individual’s shelter needs.

What does this mean for people trying to access shelters?

While the City has confidence in its reduced bed projections, those seeking shelter and making referrals for homeless clients are telling a very different story. At a loud rally at Metro Hall last Friday, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty organizer John Clarke condemned City staff for “lying” to the public about shelter bed availability. “Yesterday, a lawyer called the OCAP office and pointed out that she has clients who are trying to make bail,” said Clarke. “To get bail, they need a shelter bed, and they are staying in jail because no shelter beds are available.”

Joyce Rankin, of Street Health, who also helps to run an Out Of The Cold drop-in program, said, “We often refer to [the City's referral centre on] Peter Street, but we have no guarantee that people can actually get beds.”

Outreach worker Doug Hatlem has been having similar problems. “Our team talked to an 18-year-old man who had stayed in that [referral centre] for 15 days in the last month. Only three nights was he able to find a bed,” he said. “It goes against the explicit policy of finding someone a shelter bed within 24 hours.”

Why do staff expect a decrease in shelter bed use in 2013?

Anderson didn’t give a rationale for the reduced projection, but has, in other interviews, cited reduced demand by refugees as a reason.

City documents, meanwhile, describe financial pressure because of a housing stabilization fund the province has downloaded to municipalities.

We asked Anderson if reduced access to the stabilization fund, which helps people pay last month’s rent deposits and buy furniture, would put more people on the streets and in need of shelter. She replied, “The City monitors the emergency shelter system occupancy numbers very closely. Our job is to make sure that there are emergency shelter services available for people who need them.”

How easy is it to access a bed?

Frontline workers and advocacy groups paint a grim picture. Beyond anecdotal reports from workers at OCAP and AIDS Action Now, a 2007 Street Health survey says that 55 per cent of respondents couldn’t access a City shelter, and that they were denied access an average of 20 times that year.

Michael Shapcott, a housing advocate with Wellesley Institute, is concerned that things are only getting worse. “In 2013, for the first time, the Province of Ontario is placing an annual cap on funded homeless bed nights,” he said. “If there is a surge, the City will have to cover 100 per cent of the costs rather than having the province pick up upwards of 80 per cent of the cost of hostel beds, as it does now.”

How will city council know if the City’s 2013 shelter bed projections are meeting demand?

According to Anderson: “Shelter, Support and Housing Administration is reporting to the March meeting of the Community Development and Recreation Committee on access to shelter beds. At the same meeting, we will also be reporting on the strategy for homeless and street-involved populations during emergencies.”


  • OgtheDIm

    Important message.

    Can somebody other then OCAP please take the lead on this?

    OCAP has zero credibility with the general public.They jumped the shark back in the Harris years when they said they were occupying that park….when they were just taking shifts going home at night.

    OCAP’s involvement in an advocacy role actually hurts more then it helps.

    This issues is more important then OCAP’s continued need to exist.

    • dsmithhfx

      Well, maybe, except they seem to be the only ones doing it…

      • Leslie Miller

        not true at all – there are dozens of advocacy grps in GTA – advocating daily for homeless and other marginalized people… I know cause I am personally member of close to 1/2 doz of them.

    • Leslie Miller

      “OCAP’s involvement in an advocacy role actually hurts more then it helps.”
      I hear dat… was gonna re-post/share etc – but soon as seen OCAP – NO Way this goes on any of my pages!

  • treptower

    Don’t worry, there will soon be more than enough empty condos to handle the overflow! No guarantee that the windows won’t fall out but beggars can’t be choosers.

    • Torontopoly

      150,000 people move to this city each year. There will not be a shortage of demand for condos to buy or rent.

      • dsmithhfx

        Keep telling yourself that.

        • Torontopoly

          I don’t have to tell myself that. I can look at these things called statistics (facts) as opposed to making shit up.

          • dsmithhfx

            Crystal ball, or ouija board?

    • KM

      Street-involved and at-risk people are often priced out of not just apartment, but room rentals in shitty areas in Scarborough and even the York U ghetto. When you consider how much rentals cost in this city and how little OW recipients get monthly, that “beggars can’t be choosers” remark is in unbelievably poor taste.

      Gotta love how you’re making jokes about people dying. Classy.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Maybe the City’s projections are lowered the way the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics has finessed the unemployment rate: “discouraged” people who have given up looking for work are not counted among the unemployed.

    If some homeless people know there’s no use in asking for a bed, fewer requests will be made and then turned down. Good on paper, inhumane in reality.