Community Counselling & Resource Centre

Homeless advocates interrupt council meeting to demand Toronto add new shelter beds

February 12th, 2018

Advocates interrupted Toronto city council's meeting on Monday to demand that council approve 1,500 new shelter beds, adding at least 1,000 this year, to ensure homeless people have warm places to sleep on winter nights.

"A thousand beds now," other advocates chanted. "Hey John Tory, a thousand beds or you'll be sorry."

Yogi Acharya, an organizer of the advocacy group Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, said in a news release that new shelter beds are urgently needed and conditions in winter respite sites should be improved immediately.

"Such callous disregard for the lives of the poorest people in this city must and will be challenged," Acharya said.

​The rally at city hall was held on the day that Toronto council is debating its capital and operating budget for 2018. 

At least one advocate was removed from city hall's upper deck for interrupting the proceedings in council chambers. Once a handful of Toronto police officers showed up, the advocates began to file out. 

Don Peat, spokesperson for Mayor John Tory, said the city has taken action to improve the desperate situation facing homeless people in Toronto as the city experiences a frigid winter.

'City has responded'

"The city has responded to unprecedented demand for shelter services by opening eight 24/7 winter respite sites this year that have helped hundreds of people get out of record-breaking cold temperatures," Peat said.

He said city staff are working to improve the standards of services at the winter respite services and at the warming centres.

According to Peat, Tory has supported the addition of more than 1,200 shelter beds over the last two years and will support the 2018 budget plan to add 1,000 new shelter beds.

"While city staff believe these beds can be added over the next three years, the mayor will be pushing staff to add the beds as soon as possible," Peat said.

"The mayor also remains committed to working with the provincial and federal governments to address the roots of homelessness and to expanding supportive housing to help people move out of the shelter system."

Video shows conditions in respite centres

Before the rally, OCAP released a video entitled "No Respite" that contains footage of three winter respite centres in Toronto taken with a hidden camera. 

The video shows scenes from the Better Living Centre at the Exhibition Grounds, Margaret's Housing and Community Support Services, 323 Dundas St. E., and All Saints Community Centre-Church, 315 Dundas St E. All Saints is an overflow site for Margaret's. 

Through shaky images, the video shows the lights left on at night at the Better Living Centre, where a staff person is in a protected area. It shows what appears to be overcrowding, with mats close together, at Margaret's. And it says the heating at All Saints is insufficient, with the temperature dropping to 14 C.

The video says 115 people slept at the Better Living Centre on Feb. 6, while 139 slept there on Feb. 7. And it says between 663 to 787 people have slept in winter respite sites each night in Toronto in early February. 

"It is virtually impossible to get a bed in a shelter," the video says. "We need 1,500 new beds to insure that everyone who needs a bed gets one; at least 1,000 beds in 2018. The conditions in the respite centres must be improved immediately."

Patricia Anderson, manager of partnership development for the city's shelter, support and housing administration, was critical of the video, saying it is "generally considered inappropriate" to film vulnerable people in what should be considered private spaces.

Anderson said winter respite services funded by the city are designed to meet the needs of people who do not want to use the shelter system, which involves an intake process.

But the city is committed to enhancing the respite centres, she added.

"The city is working on improving standards of services at the eight winter respite services and at the warming centres which provide similar services but on a more temporary basis. However, the goal remains to get people inside."

As for the lights at the Better Living Centre and Margaret's, she said they are dimmed for the night. She said the fenced-off area at the Better Living Centre has been set up to create office space where intakes can be conducted, valuables stored and administrative tasks performed.

Regarding temperatures at the winter respite centres, she said a number of them are reported to the city daily. For example, at 315 Dundas St. E, the temperature was 20.6 C on Sunday and it was 22.8 C on Monday at 4 a.m

"The city continues to provide assistance with logistics and some supplies to winter respite sites," she said. "There is daily reporting from all sites on numbers of service users and regular check-ins throughout afternoon and evening shifts as city staff monitor service usage to ensure sufficient capacity is available and appropriate referrals are made."