Councillors want to see shelter occupancy kept at or below 90 per cent.
City councillors have overwhelmingly endorsed a plan to add more capacity to Toronto’s homeless shelter system.
With a 40-1 vote earlier today—Mayor Rob Ford was the only one opposed—council endorsed a motion by Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) to keep shelter occupancy at or below 90 per cent. (The rate has hovered at 96 per cent in recent months.) The plan also calls for an independent review of shelter intake practices, and a client survey on shelter access and conditions.
For several months, housing advocates across Toronto have warned of overcrowding and poor access at City shelters, citing an increase in the number of homeless deaths. Council seemed to agree that, despite reassurances from City staff that bed supply is meeting demand, the current occupancy levels are too tight.
Mihevc told reporters that staff at the City’s Shelter, Support, and Housing Administration can now open new facilities, if necessary, to make extra room for those who need it. This goes further than Mihevc’s original proposal, which asked only for existing “flex beds” to be opened up.
Yesterday the former budget chief, Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) expressed concerns about an occupancy rate of 90 per cent, saying that in his mind that was just an indication of an inefficient system. Why, he said, should the City pay for beds that aren’t used? Today Mihevc argued that that extra capacity is necessary to serve as a buffer, to accommodate the vagaries of a system with dozens of shelters, and people with various needs who need to access the system in all parts of the city. “There will be enough flex in the system to deal honourably with people who need a bed,” he told reporters after the vote.
Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), who chairs the community development and recreation committee that oversees this file, thanked housing advocates for stepping forward with their concerns about bed shortages. “There is a gap, and we need to address it,” she said. Other politicians, including Mayor Ford, had suggested in recent weeks that advocates were exaggerating problems with shelter access.
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty organizer John Clarke described the vote as a big victory for those currently struggling to access emergency shelter. “It wasn’t a long time ago that we were being told the shelters are working just wonderfully,” said Clarke. “We have the basis now for at least taking the pressure off the system.”
OCAP organizer Liisa Schofield said the group’s direct advocacy, including sit-ins at City Hall and Metro Hall, was key in pressuring council to act. “Sustained action on the part of advocates across the city has worked,” said Schofield. She also said Ford’s public condemnation of OCAP was a smokescreen to avoid action. “It was obviously a distraction and an attempt to not have to answer for folks dying on the streets.”
The key element in today’s decision, Mihevc emphasized, is that it establishes an occupancy rate rather than a specific number of beds: the goal isn’t to be wedded to a fixed number of spots in the system, but to ensure that the system has the capacity to meet changing needs at any point in time.
A report on the state of the shelter system is expected later this year.