Almost a year after protestors took over Metro Hall for the homeless, the City has opened it up voluntarily.
In the midst of bone-chilling winter weather, the City has opened the rotunda at Metro Hall, a municipal building at 55 John Street, as a warming centre for Toronto’s homeless population. City staff are calling this a “pilot project” to supplement existing emergency shelters and drop-ins across Toronto.
Pat Anderson of the City’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration Division confirmed in a phone interview that 21 people used the facility last night. She told us the warming centre is meant to provide relief, not to operate as other City shelters do. “There are no cots,” Anderson said. “If somebody wants an emergency bed, our staff are there to provide a referral.” Anderson also said this was the first time that SSHA had opened its own warming centre.
Last March during similarly extreme cold weather, members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty staged a demonstration at Metro Hall and demanded it be opened up to the homeless to ease high shelter occupancy rates. Police arrested and ticketed dozens of protestors that evening, but OCAP and other housing advocates maintained pressure for additional relief spaces.
OCAP member Liisa Schofield hailed the centre as an acknowledgement of the needs of homeless residents. “It’s not everything we need, but it’s a really important victory,” said Schofield during a phone interview. She was, however, disappointed that City officials did not issue a press release on the opening of the warming centre until this morning. “It’s something they should announce and congratulate themselves for,” Schofield said.
The City continues to deal with high occupancy rates in its emergency shelters; the opening of Metro Hall was one of several relief measures City staff put forward at the December meeting of the Community Development and Recreation Committee.
In the absence of a formal announcement from the City, councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre–Rosedale) turned to social media and her own website to spread the news. “Considering it’s the first time we’ve opened up Metro Hall in this capacity, we could have done more,” Wong-Tam told us this morning. “I imagine [attendance] could have been higher if more people knew the facility existed.”
Wong-Tam also said that “there is once again no information from the mayor’s office on support for homeless people.” She was extremely critical of mayor Rob Ford in late 2012 for failing to communicate emergency plans for the homeless during severe weather. Ford tweeted an announcement about the warming centre this morning—Metro Hall was opened up yesterday at around 3 p.m.
Metro Hall will remain open around the clock for as long as the City’s official Extreme Cold Weather Alert is in effect. It will be re-activated during any future cold weather alerts this winter. Anderson told us the City will assess the value of the service at the end of the winter season.