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A tale of two Toronto warming centres

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It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. At the peak of the recent holiday season Toronto and parts of Ontario were hit with an ice storm that caused catastrophic damage, power outages, travel disruptions and displacement of people from their homes. Toronto was particularly hard hit with close to one million people affected by significant power outages for days.

It was also the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness. While a frustrating debate over the benefits of the Mayor declaring a state of emergency waged on (it never was), Toronto Hydro quickly and wisely went to their Level 3 Emergency status, employing the necessary resources to respond. In addition, the city operated 12 warming centres in partnership with the Red Cross and 12 police stations provided rooms as warming centres.

It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. There were surprising and shocking lessons learned. Toronto, the largest city in Canada, had no capacity to effectively communicate with those without power, access to cell phones, computers, Twitter or Facebook. We had no ability to identify vulnerable people or to marshal city staff, army or reservists, Community Care Access Centres or others to their aid. That was left to police and only on Day 4, Christmas Day did door-to-door checks begin.

What we did well, we did really well. We learned of a heightened sense of community with neighbours helping neighbours. Most impressive was the Red Cross operation of warming centres.

I visited three locations to see for myself. I met cheerful and experienced Red Cross volunteers who had joined this relief effort from other parts of Ontario and provinces not affected. I saw clean and efficient operations: gymnasiums with up to 100 cots, warm blankets, access to washrooms and showers, personal hygiene supplies and donations of clean clothing; an abundant supply of healthy snacks and beverages and three substantive meals per day; and activities for people to help them pass the time.

City councillors, community leaders and members of the media visited warming centres providing information and I’m sure great encouragement to people that their plight was not unnoticed. I’m not an expert in emergency relief efforts, but I’m pretty confident there are international standards and I suspect the warming centres during the recent ice storm came darn close.

Contrast this with what can only be called the winter of despair for people who are homeless in Toronto. No affordable housing in sight. Overcrowded shelters operating at dangerous levels, beyond the recommended 90 per cent capacity. Hundreds of homeless people, considered the overflow from full shelters, forced to sleep on floor mats at the 27 year old, volunteer-based Out of the Cold program. In the morning they awake, maybe get a bag lunch, only to line-up for the Out of the Cold basement open that night.

Not an ice storm but extreme cold weather resulted in the city declaring three 'Extreme Cold Alerts,' a January record. The alert triggers additional services for people who are homeless, such as outreach and TTC tickets to get to a shelter -- if there is space! However, it was only with the persistent advocacy of the anti-poverty group Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and perhaps the untimely death of a homeless man Richard Kenyon December 23, outside the Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens, that the city succumbed to demands and opened a warming centre at Metro Hall. Seemingly unaware of the city’s history of operating warming centres in the past (even in the same location), the city announced the 'pilot' program.

This is where the tale of two cities is most palpable. Remember the ice storm warming centre operations? The City’s warming centre for the homeless looks very different. An area for use is taped off in the large drafty public rotunda at Metro Hall. There are a few tables and chairs. A few blankets arrive on Day 3. There are no mats, no cots and no meals. In fact, an Anglican congregation is refused their offer to deliver a hot meal. There are no privacy barriers and as a steady stream of people working in or visiting the municipal building pass through the rotunda they are clearly disturbed by the sight, only several feet away, of men and women lying on the carpet with only their coat as a blanket and personal belongings for a pillow.

The weather warms and the warming centre shuts. The weather gets cold, it opens again. This time there are 40 thick mats and blankets but more than 40 people are using the centre. There are still no cots. There are granola bar snacks but no meals and most disconcerting no plans to provide meals. This time, the same church is allowed to deliver a dinner. Unlike the ice storm warming centres this warming centre is pretty much left alone. There is no steady stream of politicians, community leaders or media there to witness the circumstances of this emergency. So guess what? On a Friday afternoon, when the weather is deemed 'warmer' but with a wind chill it is -20C and there are anticipated 100km/hr winds, the warming centre is shut.

It is a far, far better thing that we should do here. I think most Torontonians would agree.

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Cathy Crowe is a long-time Street Nurse and past Atkinson Economic Justice Fellow. She is currently a Distinguished Visiting Practitioner Department of Politics at Ryerson University.

Photo: flickr/Rob Chandler

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