Shelter conditions called “atrocious” by housing advocate at city hall

11:09 a.m. Jan. 17, 2017 “We know that the only thing that ends homelessness is housing,” Kira Heineck, ‎executive lead at the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness, said to the Community Development and Recreation Committee at the city hall on Thursday.

Jan 17, 2017

By Arianne Robinson

The item at the Community Development and Recreation Committee meeting was to “provide an update on the status of Winter Respite Services and the additional services activated during the recent cold weather.”

However, the chair of the committee, Councillor James Pasternak, moved that the committee instead hear from the public immediately.

“I’ve had a couple of requests that the staff presentation is not necessary. That if staff have comments to make they can certainly make them, embed them into responses from questions for staff. I’m just canvassing the opinion of the committee on whether, in fact, that is the way we should go,” Pasternak said.

Of the councillors on the committee who were supportive of the approach, many were also signatory to a letter sent by Mayor John Tory’s office the night before, including Kristyn Wong-Tam, Joe Mihevc, Joe Cressy, Gary Crawford, Ana Bailão, Paula Fletcher and James Pasternak.

The crux of the letter was a statement that funding is needed from all levels of government to respond to the many issues related to those whose lives involve homelessness, including services for mobile full primary care, harm reduction and mental health services so that street-involved individuals can access supports where they are located, be it in an emergency shelter or a drop-in.

Deputations as of noon on Wednesday reflected the various needs across the city. “Globally we know that the only thing that ends homelessness is housing,” said Kira Heineck, ‎executive lead at the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness. “So the evolving city shelter system – and I think the plan is a good one and you’re heading in the right direction – needs to emphasize housing as the first key strategy.”

A letter submitted to the committee by 16 organizations (including the Toronto Drop-In Network, Houselink Community Homes, Sistering, and the Canadian Harm Reduction Network) who provide housing and harm reduction services requests funding for a new permanent shelter with 1,500 beds in 2018. “This new shelter must include low threshold and harm reduction shelters for men and women. In addition, the City must urgently address the state of crisis within the family shelter system ad allocate funds to increase and improve the family shelter system.”

A letter from A.J. Withers, an organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, echoes the need for 1,500 beds, but adds the number should be higher. “The number also increases dramatically if it were to attempt to include the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are hidden homeless – those sleeping on floors, etc., sometimes in abusive or dangerous conditions.”

Speaking with Signal Toronto at the committee meeting, Withers explained further. “We need the armouries and the winter respite centres to stay open until there’s another solution. Right now the conditions in the winter respite centres are truly atrocious. That needs to be dealt with immediately.”

“There are large, giant rooms with not enough bathrooms. At All Saints (Church-Community Centre) they have an open bathroom with no door and people have to ask for toilet paper. There’s insufficient heat in a number of the quote-unquote warming centres. There’s not enough space, a lot of noise, no place to keep your items so people have to carry them with them to the bathroom. No showers. The newer spaces that have been open are a lot better conditions. That’s why the armouries need to stay open unless something else is found,” Withers said.

“We’re optimistic about what is happening here, but we’re also very cautious.”