Open letter: Access to safe shelter and ending violence against women needs to be made a priority

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To The City of Toronto, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration and to the Community Development and Recreation Committee:

We, the undersigned, represent many concerned women’s agencies, community organizations and advocates in the city that work with women every day.

We are writing on this 25th day of November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, to demand that the city take immediate action to address the shelter crisis and the tremendous violence experienced by homeless women every night.

As you are well aware, City Council voted to bring shelter occupancy rates down to 90 per cent more than seven months ago, but have failed to keep their promise. Instead of taking immediate and decisive action, the city has thrown some mats on floors of shelters and called them "flex beds." Capacity for all shelters remains well over 90 per cent in all sectors and there has been no additional shelter opened nor have the overcrowding or worsening conditions been addressed in any meaningful way.

For women, the state of the city’s shelters is particularly devastating. Women’s shelters are operating at 97 per cent capacity or higher every night, even with the use of "flex beds." On most days, despite what the city keeps arguing, there are no beds available for women and women are told to go to Peter Street to wait for a bed that may not even materialize.

Homeless and marginally housed women are subjected to violence every day, are unable to access emergency shelters or violence against women (VAW) shelters and are often left on the street without options. Many are forced to secure temporary shelter in settings that are unsafe, insecure and traumatizing.

Just recently, on September 22 between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., a homeless woman was sleeping on some steps in the Dundas Street East and Sherbourne Street area. She was sexually assaulted by two different men that same night.

The crisis in the shelter system is continuing to worsen with each passing day. It is certain that the colder weather will only make this situation even more desperate. It is also certain that without action more women will be victims of assault and violence and unable to access help or safety because of this crisis.

In response to this crisis, we are demanding that the city:

- Replace "flex beds" with real beds: Mats on the floor of already overcrowded shelters should not be considered an option. "Flex beds" creates overcrowding and unlivable conditions. Replace "flex beds" with real beds in adequate new facilities

- Open an adequate new women’s shelter immediately. The City of Toronto needs to open a new women’s facility (or facilities) with 50 real beds. The number of beds must meet the demand -- anything short of this will continue to perpetuate the crisis. (We want to also underscore that there is need for shelters in all other sectors -- men, youth, co-ed -- we demand that these capacity issues also be addressed)

- Ensure that the shelters are located in accessible spaces for women and trans folks who are most marginalized

- Immediately open 24 hour or after hour safe space in the downtown east and west ends, especially accessible to women in these areas. This issue has been referred over to further reports and consultations, but we need action now

- Open shelters that are harm reduction and pet friendly

- Address the overall loss of approximately 200 shelter beds from the system in the last ten years

It is especially distressing that on this internationally recognized day for the elimination of violence against women, women in this city cannot access safe shelter and are being assaulted on the streets at night. This cannot continue and we demand action now.

We look forward to your prompt response.

Signed,

Organizations:
Assaulted Women's and Children's Counsellor/Advocate Program at George Brown College
Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic
Ernestine's Women's Shelter
416 Community Support for Women
Jessie’s, The June Callwood Centre for Young Women
Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services
The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC)
Native Women’s Resource Centre Toronto
Nellie’s
No More Silence
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
The Redwood | A safe haven for women and children fleeing abuse
Regent Park Community Health Centre
Sistering
South Riverdale Community Health Centre
Street Haven
Street Health
Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape
Women’s Habitat of Etobicoke

Individuals and Supporters:

Cathy Crowe, Long-time Street Nurse, co-founder Toronto Disaster Relief Committee
Jane Doe
Min Sook Lee, Toronto Filmmaker
Winnie Ng, CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy, Ryerson University
Laura Sky, Filmmaker

This open letter appears on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty site.

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