Housing Advocates Sound the Alarm On Shelter Access
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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.

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Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bielousov/6317952337/"}Anton Bielousov{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}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.”