A decision on whether to use the Moss Park Armoury as a seventh winter respite site amid extreme cold temperatures in the city is expected to be made on Thursday, Spadina-Fort York Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan told CP24.

The decision is expected to be made after a formal application was submitted to the federal government from the province and the city.

“The City was advised by public safety minister Ralph Goodale that a request related to the federal armory would have to be relayed through the request for assistance protocol,” the mayor’s spokesperson Don Peat told CP24 in an email on Wednesday evening. “This requires the City’s office of emergency management to submit a request to the provincial emergency operations centre, where it is then relayed to the federal government.”

Peat said the City’s request was submitted to the provincial emergency operations centres on Wednesday afternoon.

In December city council voted 25-17 against a motion calling on the staff to begin discussions with the feds regarding the use of the armouries.

At the time Tory said that the city had better options available to it, mainly the use of the Better Living Centre – but on Wednesday he conceded that a “dramatic increase” in demand for shelter space has left the system “undoubtedly under strain” and has made it clear that more beds need to be made available.

Overnight, the city’s shelter system was at 95 per cent occupancy and three out of the six winter-respite sites were at capacity. A total of 99 beds at the recently opened Better Living Centre respite site were also occupied amid the extreme cold.

“We had options that ranked ahead of the armouries such as the Better Living Centre but now that we are in possession of information that we are likely to need a seventh respite site we have proceeded to formally ask the federal government for answers to questions in order to make sure that it qualifies as a suitable site,” Tory said. “In the event that those answers come back in a satisfactory manner I will be supportive of using the Moss Park site for a seventh winter respite centre, which we fully anticipate that we are going to need.”

More than 38,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the city to use the Moss Park and Fort York armouries as emergency shelters but Tory has largely rejected the idea, at least until now.

Speaking with reporters at city hall on Wednesday, Tory said that the armouries were never taken “off the table.”

In fact, he noted that staff were in discussions with the Department of National Defence regarding the use of the armouries in December, even after council voted against making a formal request for their use.

“We never said it was off the table. It never was off the table,” he said. “The city stance and my stance always was that this was down the list of options because the staff indicated to me that there were other options that could be implemented faster and perhaps better, a good example being the Better Living Centre, where we took a building we owned and in very short order made it available for the purpose we are now using it for.”

The city has used the Moss Park and Fort York armouries for emergency shelter space before, most recently in 2004.

Tory said that his hope is that a 100-bed respite site can be opened at the Moss Park armoury in short order and remain open until April 15.

“It is an active military installation; it is being used day-by-day by the Canadian Forces. We need to make sure that we can find a way to separate off a part of that building for use as a homeless shelter because in previous times that it was used I think most of those times it was not available 24 hours a day, so people had to leave at 7 a.m.” he said.

City’s process of submitting formal request

The formal request to the federal government was made after Tory said he had asked the federal government to provide answers to a number of questions by the end of business on Thursday.

He said the city and province would begin to work on a formal request if the answers to those questions were favourable.

“We can turn on a dime and we have in other situations but there is a process that you have to go through to get the Canadian army to act on Canadian soil. We have made sure the city is fully aware of what it is and it is up to the city to ask and put a plan on the table and then we can respond as fast as necessary,” Vaughan told CP24 on Wednesday.

Vaughan said the federal government officials were monitoring the strain on Toronto’s shelter system and had been in talks with the city with the expectation that a request for the use of the armouries would have eventually been made.

A street nurse who has been lobbying for the use of the armouries for emergency shelter since last winter, meanwhile, told CP24 that she is just happy that Tory is acting, albeit belatedly.

“He has finally listened and I think the mounting evidence in terms of the growing numbers of people needing shelter and public opinion swayed him,” Cathy Crowe said. “This has been a catastrophe. If it had been a different kind of catastrophe I think we would have seen the mayor or at least a deputy mayor much earlier.”

Crowe said that the overcrowding in the shelter system is “not a new problem” and has created a “nightmare” situation, wherein some social service workers spend hours on the phones just trying to find available beds for homeless residents.

She said she is encouraged by Wednesday’s announcement and is hopeful that the doors to the Moss Park Armoury will be opened to the homeless quickly.

“In 1996 after three men froze to death on the streets of Toronto this was opened within 48 hours,” she told CP24 outside the building.

Additional beds added to Better Living Centre

In addition to initiating formal discussions regarding the use of the Moss Park Armoury, Tory said the city has also increased the number of beds at the Better Living Centre winter respite site from 110 to 140 with plans to add another 10 in the coming days.

The site is intended as a drop-in centre which will be open to the homeless even if all its beds are filled but controversy did erupt over the weekend after some people were wrongly told that the facility was at capacity when there was close to 40 beds available.

Those communication issues are now the subject of an enquiry by the city’s ombudsman, which was announced on Tuesday.

“The miscommunication that took place where people were told that there wasn’t space when in fact there was is not defensible and that is something we have to get to the bottom of,” Tory said. “The fact is that no one should have been told at any time, because it just wasn’t true, that there wasn’t space available.”

The city has a total of 5,460 shelter spaces but the occupancy rate system-wide regularly exceeds 95 per cent.

In December council directed staff to provide 400 additional shelter spaces as soon as possible. About 200 of those are now available while the remaining 200 are expected to be made available in the coming weeks.