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Empty Shelter Beds Offer Little Comfort

Given Toronto's longstanding affordable housing crisis, it should be no surprise that there's pressure on emergency shelters.

For months, housing advocates have been asking why many of the homeless people they serve are having such a tough time accessing emergency shelter in Toronto. City officials and Mayor Rob Ford have assured the public that nearly every night, about a hundred emergency shelter beds across Toronto lie empty, available to anyone who asks. Yet, in an open letter to Ford and city council, over 30 church and community groups that work with the homeless are citing “an urgent need to open additional shelter space to reduce the pressure on the system.”

By many accounts, the shelter referral centre at 129 Peter Street is itself regularly over capacity. Patrons regularly sleep on the referral centre’s floor and chairs. Their inability to access dozens of reportedly empty beds might be due, in part, to the fact that men cannot access women’s shelters, and adults cannot use youth facilities. Empty beds that don’t correspond with need—based on gender, age, physical ability, or location—offer no comfort to those who cannot use them.

The squabble over beds is taking place in the context of Toronto’s ongoing affordable housing crisis, which City staff have thoroughly documented and politicians have universally decried. The mayor and some councillors seem reluctant to consider warnings from front-line workers over the reliability and usefulness of official statistics about emergency shelters, but the idea that shelters are under serious pressure isn’t far fetched when we examine what we already know about housing in Toronto.

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A sign at a recent Metro Hall sit-in to protest shelter access. Photo by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.

Between November 2012 and January 2013, Toronto’s affordable housing wait list [PDF] shrunk by 620 people. The remaining 161,266 people in line can comfort themselves that at this pace, it will only take about 40 years to clear the backlog, assuming no one else trying to make rent in Toronto applies for assistance.

The public housing we do have is costing us so much in upkeep that, late last year, the Ford administration decided to sell some of it to pay for at least a few repairs. We lost housing, and we’re still in a huge maintenance hole. Toronto Community Housing warns that the housing stock may be threatened further, and “fewer units would mean low-income Torontonians could be denied the housing stability they need,” TCHC’s website states.

Briefing notes prepared for the newly elected city council in 2010 detail countless pressures on the emergency shelter system. The memos blame job losses during the ongoing economic recession for “a sharp increase in the number of residents receiving financial assistance” through Ontario Works, the provincial welfare program [PDF]. Toronto’s OW caseload was 75,000 in 2008; it’s now above 105,000. Staff also raised concerns back in 2010 that the expiration of federal housing allowance programs (including grants that expire at the end of this month) could “lead to a number of evictions, as it is likely that many households will be unable to afford the transition to full market rent.”

Given all this, a 96 per cent shelter capacity rate should get more attention at City Hall than it has to date. A report released on Monday [PDF] suggests that most of the surplus beds are for single men, and that spaces for all other groups are extremely tight. City officials acknowledge that inefficiencies and poor staff training could mean people are wrongly being deprived of shelter. They also admit that occupancy rates for the first months of 2013 have exceeded their initial estimates.

Last week, after protesters created a makeshift shelter at Metro Hall to call attention to the issue, Rob Ford held a press conference to address the situation. In his remarks, he maintained that it was the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty—an organization that many connect with militant ideology and disruptive tactics—that had an issue, but that overall, matters were under control. He seemed to think that by invoking OCAP, he could discredit any criticism of shelter access.

But Social Planning Toronto recently surveyed workers at 15 Toronto shelters, and their accounts seem to confirm observations by OCAP and other community groups. “Generally, we send people away every night,” one worker reported. “Ninety women were turned away [in the past month] due to lack of space, and referred to the Assessment and Referral Centre,” said another. Most of those surveyed think the city should boost its shelter capacity immediately.

Mayor Ford seldom displays any curiosity about the welfare of the homeless. (Recall his language as a councillor in 2002, when he infamously said that the prospect of holding a public meeting to consider opening a shelter in his Etobicoke ward was about as absurd as proposing a public lynching.) The Community Development and Recreation committee will discuss today’s report on shelter access next week. Even before its release, however, the mayor promised that the shelter system “is working great,” as if those occupying the floor at Peter Street are well served by the status quo.

City council would be wise not to dismiss the multiple warning signs as easily. The Out of the Cold program, a church-run shelter initiative during the winter months, will stop offering 88 shelter beds once Easter arrives. Unfortunately, the ongoing pressure on our emergency shelters isn’t going away any time soon.


  • Laka Dukus

    1) Why don’t those low-incomers get another job? that way they have more money?

    2) Why don’t they rent what they are capable of renting based on their income and stop thinking everyone needs a 2-3 bedroom house with a yard and a picketed fence? Go look for either a basement apartment or shared accomodations (think a multi-bedroom house and each bedroom is rented out to a different person)?
    3) I wonder how it feels for John Clarke (OCAP boss) to go every night to his St. Paul’s home after protests
    4) So many of those low-incomers and “poor” come to city hall with expensive jackets/boots/clothing, laptops and blackberries/iphones. If you can’t afford rent, why are you getting laptops, bbs/iphones and so forth?
    5) I wonder how much John Proffessional Activist Clarke is getting paid?

    • Steveinto

      Your ignorance is appalling.

    • vampchick21

      1. This article has to do with shelters, not Toronto Housing. Shelters are for people who have no home and no job. Toronto Housing is for people who need a home they can afford when they are either on disability or are what’s known as “working poor”.
      2. People do rent what they are capable of. Shelters are not rentals. Learn the differents. If someone has no home, they need a shelter. Get it? This of course assumes that you understand the many and varied reasons people are on the street.
      3. So being able to afford a nice home means you cannot stand up for those who cannot or who have no home?
      4. Seriously? So if one protests to gain better services for homeless and for more affordable housing for the working poor, you therefore must be a low income individual yourself? Those of us who can afford a place to live and clothes and technology must therefore play the “FUGM” card? Really?

      • Neville Ross

        You go, girl.

    • Winkee

      161,266 people on the wait-list for affordable housing, in a city with a vacancy rate of virtually ZERO and avg rents approaching 1000/month for garbage accommodations. Can you tell me again how these people should just go find a cheap basement apartment? If it was that easy don;t you think many people would have attempted your quick and easy solutions before now?

    • Neville Ross

      Why don’t you and the other brainwashed conservatard members of Ford Nation/Tea Party North protest the high salaries and low taxes given to the business classes of this city, as well as the outrageous gentrification that they’re inflicting on the better areas of Toronto that are making the city as bland and boring as the suburban parts of Toronto used to be? Also, why don’t you agitate for the provincial and federal governments to get back into housing?

  • Rafael

    Thank you Desmond for keeping this issue “top of mind” for your readers.

    • Desmond Cole

      Thank you for reading, Rafael.

  • clementine

    This is a great article on such an appallingly important issue. I wonder why it neglects to mention the 8 homeless people deaths in 2013 and the 34 in 2012.

    • HotDang

      People should really talk about the relative mortality rates. E.g. I found this on wikipedia’s article about homelessness in Vancouver (

      “There is a 31x higher death rate for homeless females and a 9x higher
      death rate for males over the average Canadian mortality rates.”

      I’d be interested to hear what the stats are for Toronto. And here’s a study done in 1995 about homeless men in shelters in Toronto (

      “The data also showed a mortality rate among homeless people of 3 to 4 times that of the general population in Toronto”

      My quick googling didn’t turn up anything more recent or comprehensive for Toronto. I guess ideally the mortality rate would be the same as the general populations’.

      It’s easier to grasp the problem when you consider the relative mortality rates. It’s sad when anyone dies, but just counting them up gives no context.

      • clementine

        Thanks HotDang. I read somewhere that several of the deaths were from freezing from sleeping out in the cold. That’s why I think it’s relevant to the discussion of a shelter-bed shortage.

    • Steveinto

      Rob Ford is not the Mayor of homeless people, they get tossed into the mix of people he does not represent and has no interest in, Just because you live in Toronto and pay taxes does not make your voice heard. You need to belong to that special interest group, the car driving public living Etobicoke, North York or Scarborough to be heard, the rest are ignored.

  • jim1999

    “inefficiencies and poor staff training” but surely they’re Toronto Union™ employees who, by definition, are faultless.

  • Heather

    I don’t want to see anyone left outside at night, for lack of an (indoor) bed to call their own.

    I DON’T support cutting shelter beds when alternatives are not in place.

    However, I am concerned that shelters are the seemingly un-ending band-aid solution.

    While ‘get a job’ is an overly simplistic retort, which fails to cover the gambit of ills faced by many homeless, some even employed, it is not wrong to assume that if people are truly incapable of looking after themselves they ought to be under supervised care of some kind (certain kinds of mental health issues) or they ought to be willing to obtain employment, in which case that’s where our help should be focused (either job placement or training/education that brings people to a work-ready state).

    To be clear, housing should be providing pending those longer term solutions.

    I won’t preport to have all the solutions at hand, but I would like to see some areas of focus.

    Affordable housing is a function both of housing price and of personal/family income. While there are market tools to suppress housing prices, its rather awkward, and might well prove politically problematic. Boosting low income on the hand is more resolvable.

    First, for the working poor, a higher minimum wage is in order, along with medical benefits which are not tied to social assistance. While its not comfortable, it is possible to get housing if working full-time for about $13 per hour. Much below that, and it becomes impossible. As such the minimum wage should be shifted to be no less than the above, over a few years. In that proves to be a hardship for some businesses, I have no objection to off-sets of some kind, but no one should employ people at a wage that one can not survive on, even if frugal.

    Medical benefits, ie. prescriptions, dental, optical etc. need not be universal and government (though they certainly could be); they could be required to be provided by employers to all employees; and/or universal low-income benefits could be provided, the key is ensuring that no one lacks necessary medical coverages because they choose to work.

    Second, for those who are not work-ready (not finished High School, or currently suffering from addiction etc.), the supports necessary to remedy the above not only need to be available, waiting-list free, but also ‘pushed’. By ‘pushed’ I mean if the typical shelter-user is un-aware of such benefits/programs and only gets use of them if they ask for them, many will end up without the help they require. I don’t think there is a way to ‘force’ uptake of help; but it must be requirement that everyone in need of it be offered and sit down to hear the offer(s) in full.

    Finally for those who are mentally ill, in a manner requiring institutional and/or supervised community care of some kind, that help needs to be there. That means enough beds, no waiting lists, and pro-active moves by ‘the system’ to get them the care they need.

    Shelters should be an emergency and last resort form of aid; and a temporary one at that.

    Most large cities will probably always need some ‘shelter’ capacity no matter how robust their other programs; but in the longer term there should be less of this type of help; because ‘demand’ should be dramatically reduced by offering better help and long term solutions.