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City trying to prepare for increased demand at already packed Toronto shelters as winter approaches


Emergency shelters in Toronto continue to operate at capacity and the head of city’s shelter system says he is concerned about the “escalating” crisis as officials try to prepare for increased demand during the winter season.

Gord Tanner, the general manager of shelter, support, and housing administration for the city, said Toronto is seeing “unprecedented pressure” on the shelter system due to an inflated cost of living, insufficient affordable housing supply, and an increase in the number of refugee claimants arriving in Toronto.

“It is certain that demand for shelter space will increase even further this winter as it does every year when cold weather makes living outside difficult and potentially life-threatening. We want to be able to able to accommodate the significant need but… our shelter system is full and the strain on the system is only increasing,” Tanner said at city hall on Tuesday while providing details about the city’s plan to support those experiencing homelessness this winter.

“In addition, we do not have a clear picture how many more people we can anticipate arriving in Toronto in the coming months or how many people are on the cusp of homelessness.”

Tanner noted that there are currently about 9,000 people in the shelter system in addition to 1,700 who are in hotels and other programs supported by the Canadian Red Cross. About 40 per cent of shelter beds are currently occupied by refugee claimants, he said.

“The current average of the number of people that we can’t match to a shelter bed each day is about 275,” he added.

“The city is triaging the demand as best as we can… but demand continues to increase despite our best efforts with no reprieve in sight and no long-term solutions being offered by other levels of government.”

He called the situation an “escalating and deepening crisis.”

“Not only are people sleeping in encampments and doorways, on transit and in emergency rooms across the city, but people are continuously lined up and camped out… outside of our 129 Peter Street assessment and referral centre,” Tanner added.

“The increasing need for shelter shows no sign of slowing and it once again presenting significant challenges for the city as we prepare for this winter. But with that, the city is mobilizing its available resource to enhance emergency shelter space and outreach services.”

Tanner said last year, to respond to demand, the city reduced the lateral separation between shelter beds to add additional capacity, a measure the city will be taking once again this year. This, he said, will help to add a total of 180 spaces across the system.

The city has also altered its warming centre activation criteria this year.

Starting in mid November, warming centres will open when the temperature drops to -5 C, marking a departure from the previous threshold, which was set at -15 C.

“With the new activation criteria, it is anticipated that warming centres will be activated more often than in previous years and will remain open for more days,” Tanner said.

The city has secured four warming centre locations with a combined total of 170 spaces.

A 24-hour respite site, which will open on Nov. 15 and remain open until April, will provide another 40 spaces.

“I want to stress that our winter services plan may continue to evolve as we monitor demand at our warming centres and continue the search for appropriate locations to add capacity,” Tanner said.

“Staff have connected with real estate brokers, faith-based leaders, community groups and other city divisions and agencies throughout the year to find additional space for warming centres and we will continue that search.”

He said since April, city staff have formally assessed about 130 properties to see if they were suitable to serve as warming centres and he noted that staff will continue to visit more spaces in the coming weeks and months.

Tanner said one year ago, the city budgeted $660 million for emergency shelter in Toronto this year, a figure that has now grown to $741 million.

“We stated then that until there is greater commitment by all levels of government… the city’s shelter system will remain and continue at capacity and under strain. One year later that statement is more true than ever before. The unmet need has become worst,” he said.

“We know that meaningful impacts can be made when other orders of government step up and step forward with funding, with coordination and with resource commitments.”

When asked if the faith-based and community organizations that have taken in refugees claimants will be able to continue to house and feed asylum-seekers throughout the winter, Tanner said church leaders have indicated that this arrangement is not sustainable in the long-term.

“They provided interim support and now it is up to the federal government to step in,” he said.

Tanner added that the federal government must immediately establish a reception centre for refugee claimants when they first arrive in Canada.

“Right now there is not a centralized place for them to go. So what do they do? Some go to a church. Some come to Peter Street. Some don’t know where to go and that is unacceptable,” Tanner said.

“We need a reception centre that we can properly support and fund and we will partner with the federal government to do that but that is desperately required in this situation as we head into winter." Top Stories


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