Protestors concerned about the state of Toronto's shelter system brought sleeping bags to Toronto's second-most-recognizable municipal building.
Protestors with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and other organizations have laid down sleeping bags and blankets inside Metro Hall, the municipal building at 55 John Street, to call attention to what they characterize as a lack of access to emergency homeless shelters in Toronto.
About 50 OCAP demonstrators held a brief press conference on the steps of the building, before entering and camping out in the rotunda on the main floor. Police and security officials initially tried to restrain those bringing sleeping bags into the building, but backed off as demonstrators encircled and chastised them.
OCAP promised to open up Metro Hall as an impromptu homeless shelter when city councillors voted against an emergency debate on shelter access during a council meeting last month. OCAP has since been joined by dozens of community organizations, housing workers, and lawyers who say shelter access in Toronto is inadequate. Advocates say the City’s current level of shelter service may be exposing some of Toronto’s most vulnerable residents to unsafe conditions on the streets.
Housing activist Gaetan Heroux told reporters that despite the City’s claims that beds are available, people are languishing in the downtown shelter referral centre on Peter Street.
“There are reports of people having to wait hours, sometimes days, in order to get a bed,” Heroux said. “Why were those people not in beds if they are available?”
Anna, a community support worker who declined to say which organization she works for, said that finding an available bed is only part of the challenge. “Sometimes people have no money to get on transit to go from one space to another,” she told us. “If someone is in Etobicoke and there’s a bed available downtown, how are they gonna get there?”
Housing worker Zoë Dodd, of AIDS Action Now, echoed that concern. “When they say that there’s occupancy, sure, there may be a bed at Seaton House, there may be a bed at Good Shepherd, but they don’t talk about beds per gender, beds per youth,” said Dodd. “They’re playing politics with people’s lives.”
Mayor Rob Ford held a press conference shortly after protestors had settled in at Metro Hall. Ford condemned OCAP and repeated his skepticism about problems with shelter access. “Every single night, there are empty beds in our shelter system,” Ford told reporters inside his office. “Frankly, I think this is nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt.”
The mayor also said that the City had budgeted to add “many more beds” to the shelter system in 2013. Budget documents show that no beds were added. In fact, City staff estimated that fewer people would require emergency shelter in 2013.
OCAP demonstrators have vowed to maintain their protest until City officials pledge to open up more emergency shelter spaces. They are urging homeless people and concerned community members to join them in the rotunda.
Sarah Chartell, a lawyer who works with people dealing with addictions and mental health issues, told reporters that many of her clients have to remain in jail because they cannot secure a shelter bed as temporary housing. “I have clients who could be released today on bail programs if they could provide an address,” Chartell said. “We are warehousing them in jails because there are no places for them to be released to.”
“That did not occur two years ago.”
Photo by Desmond Cole/Torontoist.
This post originally stated that beds per gender and per youth are talked about, when in fact those stats are not discussed. This post has been updated to reflect this.