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The dark side of Toronto's shelter conditions

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Thirteen years ago activists demonstrated that the Toronto's shelter system did not meet the basic provisions recommended by the United Nations for Refugee Camps. In its Shelter Inspection Report, the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee called for the city to enforce health and safety standards and meet its 90 per cent threshold occupancy through the opening of new shelters, and of course affordable housing.

Witnessing catastrophic conditions this year, activists once again documented the evidence.

Out in the Cold: The Crisis in Toronto's Shelter System, a report by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) doesn't beat around the bush. "For years, the City’s response to the growing problem of destitution has been as inadequate as it has been politically possible to get away with," its authors write.

While city homeless shelters remain persistently at 95-99 per cent capacity, there remain dark and dirty secrets when it comes to how our city offers emergency shelter. Out in the Cold looked specifically at two areas: the Out of the Cold program and the warming centres -- the only back-up option for those that cannot access a shelter bed.

This year marks the 30th year that the city has relied on the volunteer-run, faith based Out of the Cold program (OOTC) for emergency shelter. That's 30 years of mostly churches and synagogues opening their gym or basement floors one night per week, only in the winter, to provide 800 shelter spots. That's 30 years of men and women being forced into a nightly migration from basement to basement. Thirty years of reliance on a program that does not meet the Toronto Shelter Standards. What does that look like? For 30 years the program has expected their "guests" to sleep on a mat on the floor with one blanket but likely no pillow, the "guests" not knowing who they might be sleeping next to. Thirty years of "guests" not having access to a shower, enough toilets, or a locker to store their belongings. For over 30 years the City has denied people access to the basic necessities to maintain health and placed people at risk of infectious disease and exacerbated illnesses.

There have been deaths in this program before but nothing like the heartbreaking tragedy when a 31-year-old aboriginal woman and a 41-year-old man died within 48 hours of each other in two different OOTC sites this past February. While coroners will likely say the deaths were due to "medical issues" there is nothing acceptable about this tragedy. These young deaths are a health marker of the devastating toll of homelessness.

It's estimated that each OOTC site relies on 200 volunteers. The City's chronic reliance on the charitable sector is clearly an intentional cost saving decision but a morally negligent one. As their doors close this season, OOTC volunteers should rage at Mayor Tory and their city councillor and insist on a phase-out of their program, replaced with shelter beds staffed with social workers, health care and harm-reduction workers.

Since the OOTC program is also bursting at the seams, homeless people must now depend on warming centres for shelter. However, Toronto has had an erratic record of calling Extreme Cold Alerts and opening warming centres in frigid temperatures -- usually responding after protests following a tragic freezing death. This year marked a creative first: two 24-hour warming centres open for the entire months of January and February, regardless of the temperature, although activists had to fight to get the money in the budget for next winter.

It's at the warming centres that the City shows its even darker side -- because they actually fund this program, albeit meagerly. A city shelter bureaucrat touring one of the warming centres remarked to one of us: "This is such terrific space." Really? Another room normally meant for card tables, bingo or group activities that gets transformed nightly into a shelter for 60-90 people and perhaps a few dogs. Again, shelter standards don’t apply. So, déjà vu: closely spaced mats on the floor, no pillow, and, if you're lucky, one lime-green blanket (a Pan Am Games legacy). People unable to get a mat sleeping under tables, in chairs. No showers, not enough toilets and definitely not enough food. This of course is no fault of the centre operators who are forced to be creative and, as in the stone soup fable, make a little go a long way.

In such a dire set of circumstances we call for a federal armoury to be opened for emergency shelter. It's happened several times in the past at both Fort York and Moss Park armouries, saving lives.

Mayor Tory and City Council should also get control and direct the General Manager responsible for shelters to adhere to the 90 per cent occupancy rule, immediately find ways to open more emergency shelters and institute a moratorium on shelter closures. Surely, it's time to show that we are a city that respects the human right to shelter!

Jessica Hales is a Primary Healthcare Nurse Practitioner and member of OCAP

Photo credit: OCAP

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