Toronto's homeless shelters are struggling to meet long-term housing needs the system was never intended to address.
Earlier this week, City staff released a report on homeless shelter occupancy and the challenges of providing relief to Toronto’s most vulnerable residents. Although the report presents no evidence to back up claims by community workers that there isn’t enough shelter space to meet demand, it provides a glimpse into a system struggling to serve many users. Here’s what we learned from the report.
Most empty shelter beds are for single men.
The majority of surplus beds are located in a few large men’s shelters—particularly Seaton House and Maxwell Meighen Centre. When you remove those beds from the count, the average occupancy levels for other groups are as follows:
“Among the various sectors,” the report notes, “beds for couples and for individuals with mobility issues including those using wheelchairs can be challenging.”
The report also acknowledges the challenges of staying at Seaton House and the Maxwell Meighan Centre: “People may have to occupy a dormitory with up to 40 other individuals experiencing some complex and challenging issues.” Men eligible to use these sites are sometimes unwilling to face these conditions. The City plans to redevelop Seaton House, but the plan won’t be realized for several years.
Beds at the shelter referral centre are not for general use.
According to the report, the Streets to Homes Access and Referral Centre (SHARC), a Peter Street facility that provides services to homeless people, has 40 beds that are open to “individuals and couples actively working on a housing plan with a Streets to Homes counsellor.” Everyone else gets referred to another shelter.
This is significant because SHARC is the referral site for those who can’t immediately find a bed. The report adds that some people choose to sleep overnight at SHARC rather than go someplace else, particularly if the only available beds are far from downtown. Additional beds in the downtown core could relieve pressure at SHARC.
Better notifications during emergency situations are in the works.
City councillors, particularly Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), said in October that shelter staff failed to plan adequately for extreme weather in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Now, the City is vowing to improve its emergency preparedness.
The report notes that shelter staff and City officials have decided that information on services to homeless people “will be considered and included as part of the key messages the City provides during emergency events.” They plan to consult shelter users directly to develop better outreach strategies.
The 2013 budget process recently made available $3 million to offset occupancy pressures in the emergency shelter system, if needed. Some of this funding
may be used to offset the cost of providing extra beds even when there isn’t an official cold-weather alert.
Staff training is critical.
Among the many challenges of co-ordinating more than 3800 City shelter spaces is ensuring that shelter staff are well trained and well informed. The report raises the possibility that “not all workers are doing intakes when someone calls seeking a bed.”
The intake process involves a long series of questions, and workers may be reluctant to initiate the process, perhaps for fear that a client will give up before completing it or simply not arrive to claim his or her space. In response, staff are seeking “an external third party to conduct random checks of bed access practices.”
Shelters continue to serve as long-term housing.
Toronto’s shelter system was never designed to meet the needs it now struggles to address. According to the report, shelters now sometimes serve as permanent or semi-permanent housing for people who should ideally be in some form of assisted-living housing. Crowded shelters are symptomatic of a much greater housing shortfall in Toronto and across the GTA.
Councillors on the Community Development and Recreation Committee will discuss all of this at their next meeting, on March 18, at City Hall.