Extra space to be created by putting down mattresses at 18 existing shelters.
In an attempt to ease pressure on Toronto’s crowded shelter system, city council’s community development and recreation committee has endorsed the activation of 172 emergency shelter beds. The committee unanimously voted to make the “flex” beds, which are normally reserved for cold weather alerts and other emergencies, available on a nightly basis. The flex beds are mattresses placed on the floors of 18 existing shelter facilities.
The recommendation will now go to the next full meeting of city council; it won’t be implemented until and unless it is passed there. (This means it won’t take effect in time for the current bout of cold weather.) The committee is also requesting an investigation into the experiences of shelter users and a potential review of shelter services by the City’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean.
It’s not clear how, exactly, this move will affect shelter access, since shelter administrators have always been able to use these beds in non-emergency situations if the system is over capacity. A shelter report released last week showed that some flex beds were activated on all but three days in January and February [PDF].
In an interview immediately following the vote, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty organizer John Clarke expressed disappointment at the decision to put more people into existing shelters instead of opening up new facilities. “There’s a contraction here,” Clarke said. “On the one hand, they’re acknowledging an overcrowded shelter system; [on the other,] their solution is to crowd more people into the existing shelters.”
OCAP and dozens of organizations that serve homeless people have been urging municipal officials to open up additional shelter facilities. Many of these groups renewed their request during deputations to the committee yesterday. “I do feel it’s clear that the pressure the community has exerted is beginning to have an effect,” said Clarke.
Michael Shapcott of the Wellesley Institute, a public policy advocacy group, agreed that the committee’s decision sends a powerful message: “I think it was a pretty strong wake-up call to the City about its bland assurances of empty beds in the system.” He hailed the decision to investigate occupancy numbers at local shelters. “Ultimately, the shelter system is in crisis,” Shapcott went on, “but so is the affordable housing system in the city.”
Councillor and committee member Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) said council will learn the potential cost of additional beds before next month’s vote. “There’s a concern that the money we do spend (on housing) is used wisely,” Mihevc told reporters after the meeting. In addition to shelters, Mihevc said the City needs more resources to spend on drop-in programs and transitional housing units.