City staff have reached out to the Department of National Defence to discuss the possibility of setting up emergency shelters at the Fort York and Moss Park armouries, though a formal request has not yet been made.

Deputy City Manager Giuliana Carbone told a meeting of city council on Wednesday that discussions have taken place with DND but she noted that there are “challenges” with using the armories as emergency shelters.

The news comes as council debates a plan from Mayor John Tory to add 400 shelter beds “as soon as possible.”

Tory has said that the beds could be added through renting hotel rooms and by better utilizing space in existing shelters.

Homeless advocates, however, have said that Tory’s plan does nothing to address the long-term need for additional shelter facilities and have called for the armouries to be opened up immediately.

“The problem is that the shelter system is already over capacity. That is why we are in this crisis right now and there are no spaces available to cram 400 more people into an already crowded space,” Kapri Rabin, who is the executive director of the community agency Street Health, told CP24 at city hall on Wednesday morning. “We need new spaces but the mayor is not talking about new spaces.”

A report that is being debated by council today recommends that Tory declare an emergency with regards to overcrowding in the shelter system.

An amendment previously addopted by the community development committee also recommends that Tory petition the federal government to open emergency shelters at the amouries, though Tory has previously said that he believes there are better ways to address the crisis.

It should be noted that Spadina-Fort York Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan did issue a statement on Wednesday indicating that the federal government would consider a formal request from the city to make the armouries available for emergency shelter space, though he noted that one has not yet been made. He said that DND would have to be made aware of how the city would “facilitate and operate the armouries” and would then evaluate the request.

“The Canadian Armed Forces stand ready to offer assistance in support of civilian authorities during any crisis in Canada, including the use of our armouries as shelters for the homeless, wherever and whenever required,” Vaughan wrote.

City has used armouries for shelter space before

The federal government has allowed the city to operate emergency shelters at its Toronto armouries on a number of occasions, most recently at the Fort York Armoury in 2004.

Though the idea has long had the support of a number of homeless advocates, Toronto’s poverty reduction advocate told CP24 on Wednesday afternoon that the city may be better off with an “in-house” solution, which he said would be “simpler and easier to manage.”

“I am not against the armouries if they are something that the federal government would be offering for free tomorrow. But they won’t be offered for free tomorrow,” Ward 21 Coun. Joe Mihevc said. “The last time there was a big cost to it. It could also take a long time to negotiate a contract, to negotiate the fees and to negotiate what happens to staff. That could take not days but weeks and in the meantime people are out in the cold.”

Tory has said that staff have suggested that using the armouries for shelter space is not a “desirable option.

Nonetheless, Trinity Spadina Coun. Mike Layton told CP24 on Wednesday that desperate times indeed call for desperate measures.

“When you have people showing up to drop-in programs and sleeping on the floor without even a mat you have a crisis on your hands, so you got to do everything you can do to address those needs,” he said.

City council has set an occupancy standard of 90 per cent for its shelter system, though facilities regularly exceed that threshold.

On Tuesday night, 95 per cent of the city’s 5,568 available shelter spaces were filled and that shot up to 99 per cent in facilities reserved for women.

Asked at Wednesday’s meeting if 400 beds would make a discernable difference in occupancy rates, the interim general manager of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration conceded that it is impossible to say.

“It is difficult to predict if the 400 beds will change that occupancy because we felt that adding the 1,400 beds in the last 12 or 14 months would have changed that occupancy rate and it did not,” Paul Raftis said.

The plan to add additional shelter spaces is one of 109 items that remain on the agenda for this week’s council meeting.