The City of Toronto is big. Really big. It is a megacity, although not by choice. When it makes mistakes, they are also big.
A few decades ago, neoliberal polices led to municipal restructuring, and amalgamations (or fusions as they call it in Quebec) across the country. They were part and parcel of neoliberal policies that argued making governments smaller would be more cost-efficient.
In 1998 the Ontario Conservative government forced the merging of six municipalities (Scarborough, North York, Etobicoke, East York, York, Toronto) into a new singular City of Toronto.
The resulting fusion was cumbersome and did not necessarily produce the promised savings or efficiencies. It most certainly resulted in a less accessible government.
Despite enormous challenges there are parts of the city that I personally think work well. Libraries, water and hydro and EMS services come to mind.
Public health, schools, social housing and welfare all have their challenges, mostly due to the failings of higher levels of government, but also due to the reticence of repeated city councils and mayors to champion these issues.
Other vital services are in appalling disarray: road safety, cycling lanes, public washrooms and water fountains and shelters.
Today, Toronto’s civic government is small, arrogant, and cruel in its thinking
The city’s shelter system has always been under the microscope for inadequate and poor conditions ranging from infrastructure to quality of services. A few years ago, it sunk to an even lower level when it created and normalized a second tier of shelters called 24-hr respites. In these, the city allows lower standards. For example, in some, 100 people would be expected to sleep in a common space in a Sprung (dome like) structure.
At another site the city created plexiglass cubicles within a large space for people to sleep in. These were challenged as prison like cells that offered no privacy.
Post SARS, inadequate attention was paid to prevent infectious disease outbreaks in shelters. In fact, in the case of both tuberculosis and Strep A outbreaks the city kept a code of silence, only alerting the community after street nurses and activists went to the media.
When it comes to homeless people sleeping outside, the situation is worse. The City of Toronto defies basic human rights such as providing access to washrooms and running water and endorses brutal evictions of homeless people from encampments and other outside locations.
There are enough reports, inquiries, deputations, coroner’s jury verdicts, court cases and ombudsman enquiries documenting Toronto’s inadequate and negligent treatment of homeless people to fill a bookshelf.
Now there is one to add: The Audit of Emergency Shelters: Lessons Learned from Hotel Operations.
City overpaid hotel owners $13.2 million
A report by Toronto’s Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler, presented to the city’s Audit Committee on June 6, details financial faults with the city’s contracts for the shelter-hotels, most of which were intended to provide physical distancing protection during the pandemic.
It’s important to appreciate the scope of this hotel component of the city’s shelter program which is the largest in Canada.
In March 2022 there were 3,900 people sheltered in 2,900 shelter-hotel rooms in 29 hotel locations. In 2021 the shelter-hotel budget was $320 million with $118 million going towards the room leases, $29 million for food, and the remainder for wraparound services, presumably staffing.
The auditor’s report is scathing, documenting layers of misspending and inattention, identifying the following:
- $13.2 million in overpayments for hotel owners for charges that were not part of the contract including:
- $2.4M for extra DMF charges (Destination Marketing Fees or Direct Management Fees) on room invoices.
- $5.3M for extra “Facility Surcharge” on meal invoices.
- $5.4M for vacant rooms where the contract does not specify, they are to be paid for.
- Between $2-3 million for leased rooms that went unused.
- $29 million for meals.
- Inadequate COVID public health protection measures.
This issue of irresponsible contract compliance is not new in the city.
The Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry was a judicial inquiry into allegations of conflict of interest, bribery, and misappropriation of funds around computer leasing contracts that were entered into by the City of Toronto in 1998 and 1999. It was held concurrently with the Toronto External Contracts Inquiry.
High demand on shelter system
In this case the scandal is a human one of a brutal nature given the state of homelessness. The city’s own statistics show close to 10,000 people are homeless, a number that does not fully capture the number of people who are outside the shelter system.
FactCheck Toronto has documented that the City’s Central Intake for shelter beds routinely turns people away. In a four-month period (2020-2021) “a total of 4,577 people requesting a space in the shelter system were still without an inside space to go at 4am – an average of 38 people each day.” In addition: “On four separate days in January, at least 90 people were still without a bed at 4am.”
The auditor’s report provides further confirmation of this: “We noted that there were about 53 to 60 rooms that should have been available for clients but did not show as available capacity in SMIS, (Shelter Management Information System) in a week that the City was under an Extreme Cold Weather Alert.”
The report further calculates that the overpayments could have provided about 52,000 room nights, meals and wraparound support services for an entire year. Or,
as some suggest, rent supplements that could have housed hundreds of people for at least a year.
All this while 216 people died homeless in 2021 in Toronto.
It’s perhaps the lone sausage with a bun and apple (breakfast), the naked hotdog sitting on a tablespoon of sauerkraut (lunch), or the disregard to allergy warnings that show the dismal level of care and respect for homeless people. City Hall may well care more about potholes.
This is food that would never have been provided to paying guests during normal hotel operations.
Food complaints have been consistent across all the hotel sites: small portions, blandness, lukewarm food, non-attention to individuals’ allergies, too many starches and way too much Styrofoam.
While this audit did not review the food quality it’s clear the city is not serving homeless people food worth $29 million. The days of unhealthy institutional food should be over. Chef Joshna Maharaj has proven that is possible with her work at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) and Scarborough Hospital. She recounts these experiences in her book Take Back The Tray: Revolutionizing Food in Hospitals, Schools, and Other Institutions.
This contract scandal necessitates solutions: recouping the money to be used for rent supplements, to house people, renegotiating contracts to ensure decent and nutritious food and utilizing all vacant hotel rooms.
After all, as the auditor notes: “Every dollar matters when it means more funds can be used directly towards making sure there are enough emergency shelter beds in the winter months or more funding can be redirected towards creating additional permanent housing to address homelessness.”