Jan. 3, 2017
By Arianne Robinson
Making his first public announcement of 2018, Mayor John Tory held a press conference on Wednesday to address reports that people were turned away from a shelter system that actually had available beds.
“The miscommunication that took place where people were told there was not space when in fact there was, is not defensible,” he said. “That is something we have to get to the bottom of, as to how that could happen that someone could call one part of the city government and be told there was no space, when if fact there was space and if they made a phone call to another part of the government that would have been confirmed.”
Tory told reporters on Wednesday he blamed a lack of modernization, saying the problem is a situation where “people are again using clipboards and pens to keep track of things – and you’re going to get miscommunication of information.”
How homeless shelters communicate availability to the public is the subject of a new enquiry by the ombudsman’s office, following reports that people were turned away from the system that actually had available beds. “We are concerned about reports that some people were mistakenly told there wasn’t any space for them on Dec. 30,” ombudsman Susan Opler said in a statement.
On the same day, the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration said they are reviewing communication protocols. “It is the expectation of the City of Toronto that anyone who requests City-funded and/or operated homeless support and respite services receives it,” said Paul Raftis, general manager of Shelter, Support and Housing Administration in a statement. “Service requests for homeless support and respite services are not to be refused during the cold weather season.”
Tory announced on Wednesday that the Better Living Centre will increase its available spaces to 150 (from the 100 announced earlier in December), and that a formal request has been made to the federal government to open the Moss Park armoury.
“Staff has been in touched with the armed forces personnel since December, and based on their advice yesterday, they will now be requesting from the Government of Canada, formal confirmation that the Moss Park armoury can be made available as a 24-hour respite centre for up to 100 beds until April 15. Later today, I’ll be speaking to Federal Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale and will reiterate our request that they work with us and our provincial partners to provide answers related to the availability of moss park by the end of day tomorrow so that we will know if that site is indeed the best available option for preparing the seventh winter respite centre.”
“It’s not a matter of anything to do with politics. Let’s put politics aside and just look at the fact that we have a need to be met,” Tory said, clarifying his stance and the stance of the city about the armouries were they were “down the list of options.”
As of Wednesday at noon, almost 40,000 people had signed a Change.org petition to open the armouries.
On Tuesday, film director Sarah Polley wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star asking the mayor to make the call to the federal government and describing a warming centre on Christmas Eve “like Dickensian London, a refugee camp or a humanitarian disaster in a Third World country. It’s not what people imagine when they think of an affluent city in Canada.”
Activist Desmond Cole’s wrote online on Tuesday, “Through a calculated blend of wordplay, distraction, and a failure to provide meaningful data, Tory is misleading the public about the desperate state of emergency shelters.”
Aside from which building will be used for an additional emergency shelter, there is political support for the Better Living Centre.
In December, when the Better Living Centre was announced as the alternative to the armouries, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the councillor who originally brought the motion for the armouries, supported the choice of the Better Living Centre. “I am pleased to see that city staff have moved expeditiously to open a new winter respite centre. This space will provide limited opportunities for those seeking to get out of the cold.” Wong-Tam also stated her concern for capacity. “I am still concerned that our shelter system is at a crisis point and the City’s overreliance on the use of hotel beds, that won’t be alleviated by adding temporary winter respite space. The same concerted effort needs to be directed toward identifying and opening new permanent shelter beds. At least 1,000 new permanent beds in 2018 would be the minimum required to lower the shelter occupancy to the council-approved 90-per-cent standard. We have yet to see City Council commit to achieving its own standard.”
Poverty reduction advocate and city councillor Joe Mihevc said in December, “I believe that this strategy, with the mayor, is the right way to go, and that we are doing it in the right way, expanding the winter respite part of the shelter system in a thoughtful, respectful, and responsible way – one that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”
On Tuesday, Mihevc elaborated to Signal Toronto: “Responsible to me means that the response meets that challenge. The Better Living Centre is a 20,000-square-foot facility, with clean washrooms, adequate space for beds, a place for catering meals, room for pets, and shower facilities… and there is room to grow beyond the 100 mats and cots currently provided as people become aware of the new location for winter respite.”
Whether Tory supports opening the Moss Park Armoury remains to be seen, as the mayor punted the question to the federal government to respond. “If the answers come back with respect to the suitability of the Moss Park Armoury for use as that extra respite centre, then it will have my support.”